In Russia, a ‘Noah’s Ark’ of genetic proportions

Moscow State University declares ambitious project to collect DNA samples of all of Earth’s living and extinct creatures

Illustrative: Noah's Ark (1846), a painting by the American folk painter Edward Hicks
Illustrative: Noah's Ark (1846), a painting by the American folk painter Edward Hicks

Earth may not be facing a literal biblical flood – at least not anytime soon – but that hasn’t stopped a Russian university from launching a modern-day equivalent of Noah’s Ark.

Harnessing what is reportedly the country’s largest-ever scientific grant, Moscow State University will embark on a project to collect and preserve the genetic material of all of Earth’s living and extinct creatures.

According to a report in Russia Today on Friday, the project is not only a metaphorical nod to the biblical tale: it will include an actual 430-square-meter “ark,” set on one of the university’s main campuses.

The structure will house a database of cryogenically frozen genetic material from the university’s other departments, including the Zoological Museum, Anthropological Museum, and Botanical Garden, the report said.

“I call the project ‘Noah’s Ark.’ It will involve the creation of a depository – a databank for the storing of every living thing on Earth, including not only living, but disappearing and extinct organisms. This is the challenge we have set for ourselves,” Moscow State University rector Viktor Sadivnichy was quoted as saying.

Moscow State University, May 2013 (photo credit: AP/Misha Japaridze)
Moscow State University, May 2013 (photo credit: AP/Misha Japaridze)

“It will enable us to cryogenically freeze and store various cellular materials, which can then reproduce. It will also contain information systems. Not everything needs to be kept in a petri dish,” he added.

It was unclear how the university intended to collect the genetic material of extinct creatures, due to the paucity of fossilized specimens containing DNA that can be sequenced.

Sadivnichy said that the database would be linked to similar projects in Russia and possibly outside of it as well.

“If it’s realized, this will be a leap in Russian history as the first nation to create an actual Noah’s Ark of sorts,” he said.

The project was said to have been guaranteed 1 billion rubles in funding, which as of Sunday morning was equivalent to $18.9 million.

The Russian initiative joins similar endeavors, including Britain’s Frozen Ark Project, which maintains over 28,000 DNA samples – more than 7,000 of which come from highly endangered species — and the San Diego Zoo, where a library of 8,400 samples spans more than 800 species, the Daily Mail reported.

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