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Invest in a DNA bank for all species

To complement its efforts to conserve nature in the wild, the Convention on Biological Diversity should develop a comprehensive and adequately funded global effort to preserve intact genomes and viable cells for every known species and for new species as they are discovered. Super-cold freezing is the current method of choice, from a whole rhino skin to a bacterium.

Freezing tissue costs US$200–300 per species, with negligible maintenance costs. Preserving material from all the roughly 1.8 million known species would cost about $540 million. The United States spends more than $1 billion every four days on the war in Afghanistan. So less than $1 billion to preserve the DNA of all known species on Earth, with whom we share billions of years of evolutionary history, seems like good value.

Keeping DNA intact for future research has the potential for cloning and for the resurrection of extinct species. Some worry that we might then do less to save life in the wild. But it does not make sense to lose genomes forever just because we lack the motivation to pursue conservation at the same time.

Plants are currently better represented in frozen collections than animals, with the best coverage for agricultural species. But seed banks collectively hold viable tissue of just a fraction of all known species. There is no shared plan or funding for an entire encyclopedia of life.

We need an inventory of what is already preserved and a plan for preserving what is not. We need shared protocols for collection and storage, and ways to ensure that countries can participate without fear of losing out on revenue from future commercial uses.

Flexible guidance on priorities would be helpful, for example to preserve the most genetically divergent species, to address threatened species in good time, and to engage the international community in collecting and storing tissue.

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Correspondence to William Y. Brown.

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Brown, W. Invest in a DNA bank for all species. Nature 476, 399 (2011).

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