To extensively document the world-wide diversity of animals has been an ongoing challenge for science and a responsibility for future generations. In the 19th century, the German zoologist Alfred Brehm managed to bring this theme closer to the hearts of the people through his popular book “Brehm’s Life of Animals”. The Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT) in Saarland and the Fraunhofer Institution for Marine Biotechnology (EMB) in Lübeck have now chosen a modern way of continuing with Brehm’s works. Together with several zoological gardens in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the Neunkircher Zoo, they founded the “CRYO-BREHM”, a live archive, which began its collection of frozen stem cells of wild animals (more precisely, of all vertebrates) from the beginning of 2005.
The term “kryos” has its roots in the Greek language and means cold or ice. At a temperature of –145° Celsius and cooled with liquid nitrogen, the valuable and solidified samples remain frozen and unchanged for many decades. As defined in biology and medicine, cryoconservation is the storage of living cells and smallest tissue pieces at extremely low temperatures. The samples are stored in large steel containers, which are built up like thermos flasks, the so-called cryo tanks. Deep-freezing is an opportunity to “pause” life, which means that cells can be held alive and almost everlasting. Until now, it is not possible to freeze and re-thaw whole animals larger than the head of a pin.
This would also not be necessary, as the entire information of a species as well as of the individual donor can be found in every single cell. The Fraunhofer IBMT has many years of experience in the area of cryo (bio) technology, which is necessary for cells not to be damaged or killed during their isolation and for large bio banks to be effectively managed.
In the same way that “Brehms Tierleben” counts as a description of all known animal species, “CRYO-BREHM” is going to be a live compendium for animals. Since the year 2005, stem cells from a wide selection of tissues of wild animals have been isolated in cooperation with zoological gardens. This follows methods that were registered as a world wide patent by the Lübecker Fraunhofer Institution for Marine Biotechnology (EMB) via the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. At –145° Celsius, the cells are held under an icy stand-still, yet are still alive and later on also still able to reproduce. A part of the samples can therefore be reproduced almost as much as wished. This is a treasure for the protection of species, research and the later usage as a benefit of mankind.
What is so special about the collection is that through the developed and improved isolation procedure, scientists of both Fraunhofer institutes secure that no animal must die or endure invasive intrusions for the cell and tissue donation.
Only after the death of the animal a wide variety of tissue and samples is removed, from which the stem cells can then be isolated. How this takes place, above all how stable, clean and reproducible cell cultures from a large variety of tissues for nearly every organism can be compiled, is the particular know-how of the consortium of zoological gardens and research institutes. The art lies in the preparation, culture and cryo storage of valuable stem cells in a state-of-the-art “ice library”.
With the foundation of the cryo research bank in Saarland’s Sulzbach in 2003, Saarland’s ministry of economic affairs and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft took the opportunity to shape this not yet internationally casted technological and economic field at the early stage.
The earlier history of “CRYO-BREHM” goes back to the year 2004. At that time, an EMB work group under the directorship of Prof. Dr. Charli Kruse created the pre requisite for the biological cell archive with a patented procedure for the isolation of animal stem cells from different tissues.
Cooperation with the Neunkircher Zoological Garden in Saarland began three years ago. Meanwhile, the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Rostock Zoo and several research institutes have also taken part and further partners are to follow. Scheduled is that a broad cell archive of wild animals can be built up as quickly as possible. Stem cells from a wide variety of tissues – ranging from fish over birds to mammals – are already available. The donors for the data bank are zoo and wild animals that die in accidents or at birth. A vet takes a sample of the animal’s dead tissue, such as glands, skin or bone marrow, from which the different stem cells are isolated owing to the experience of the Lübecker researchers.
Where certain animal species are endangered or their cell preparation is still a scientific challenge, the Fraunhofer IBMT sends a manned mobile laboratory with incubators and cryotanks. The cell culture of the sensitive stem cells takes place even during transport, despite shaking, as this occurs in special devices.
For safety reasons, hundreds of these valuable samples are stored at two different locations – in Saarland’s Sulzbach and at the EMB in Lübeck, where a modern cryobank is currently under construction, following the model of the Saarland. Both locations form the live archive, which serves as documentation of the animal world as well as research. Where necessary, Fraunhofer scientists unfreeze a sample, reproduce and propagate the cells and send them off throughout the world. A part of this archive, however, the so-called “back-up reserve” is kept secure and cannot be touched. Worldwide, there are only a few establishments similar to “CRYO-BREHM”, such as the “Frozen Zoo” in San Diego (USA), the “Frozen Ark” in Great Britain and the Russian “Specialised Collection of Domestic and Wild Animals”.
Prof. Dr. Günter Rolf Fuhr has been the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT, located in St. Ingbert and Sulzbach, since 2001 as well as proprietor of the Chair of Biotechnology and Medical Engineering at Saarland University. Before this, he worked at the Department of Biology at Humboldt University in Berlin and founded the Centre for Biophysics and Bioinformatics for Humboldt University in the year 2000.