- To protect Earth’s species diversity, we presently store genetic material in vaults
- Material including seeds and spores could be used to recover lost species
- But gene banks on Earth are vulnerable to the catastrophes they insure against
- US experts propose to more safely store specimens in lava tubes on the moon
- The deposits would be cryogenically frozen and tended by levitating robots
Sperm and egg samples from 6.7 million of Earth’s species should be sent to an ark built on the moon as a ‘modern global insurance policy’, scientists have proposed.
The lunar gene bank — which could also house seed and spore samples — is envisaged as being built under the lunar surface, in a hollow, cooled lava tube.
Specimens deposited in the ark would be kept refrigerated at cryogenic temperatures, with the facility powered by solar panels on the lunar surface.
Earth is naturally a volatile environment,’ said study author and mechanical engineer Jekan Thanga of the University of Arizona.
‘As humans, we had a close call about 75,000 years ago with the Toba supervolcano eruption, which caused a 1,000-year cooling period and, according to some, aligns with an estimated drop in human diversity,’ he added.
‘Because human civilization has such a large footprint, if it were to collapse, that could have a negative cascading effect on the rest of the planet.’
The idea of creating gene banks to restore lost biodiversity in the future is not new — more than a million seed samples are currently stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen in the Artic Sea, for example.
However, Professor Thanga and colleagues explained that locating such facilities on Earth leaves them also vulnerable to accidental loss.
Climate change, for example, has the potential to push many species into terminal decline in the future — and, at the same time, the rising sea levels which will accompany global warming will see the Svalbard vault lost beneath the waves.
Removed but still accessible, the moon may present a safer location.
Building a genetic storage facility on the moon would be a significant undertaking — but one that Professor Thanga says would be possible.