Postcard — April 7, 2016, 8:00 am

Frozen World

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s frozen-specimen collection. 

A Camp on the Shore of Victoria Land, originally published in the March 1913 issue of Harper's Magazine

A Camp on the Shore of Victoria Land, originally published in the March 1913 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Noah built a boat to preserve the world’s biodiversity; today, scientists build freezers. In the underbelly of Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, I meet Julie Feinstein, the director of the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection. I think we are somewhere beneath the Hall of Minerals or of Meteorites but, after the bewildering number of twists and turns we’ve taken—through the museum’s exhibits and down into storage facilities and then across the shipping room—it’s hard to tell for sure.

Feinstein’s laboratory is one of the museum’s hidden marvels. Among the world’s largest cryogenically frozen-tissue-sample collections, it exists in a tiny basement on the building’s western edge, near the corner of West Seventy-Seventh Street and Columbus Avenue. Not far from where we are standing is a 3,000-gallon liquid-nitrogen tank surrounded by eight-foot fences with six-inch metal spikes on top. The tank feeds liquid nitrogen into stainless steel vats inside the laboratory, and in these vats rest 100,000 organic samples—little pieces of whales and birds and monkeys and other nonhuman species taken from around the planet and now kept frozen at minus 160 degrees Celsius.

Around 10,000 samples have been added to the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection each year since it was built in 2001, and it has the capacity to hold one million. The samples are the foundation of the museum’s efforts to map the evolutionary relationships among organisms through their genetic makeup, and many of the specimens are exceedingly rare: highly endangered Channel Island foxes; a nautilus from Vanuatu, in the South Pacific; leopard frogs from the Huachuca Mountains. Lepidopterologist Dan Janzen’s life’s work—samples from forty years of butterfly collecting in Costa Rica—is housed in the collection. So is some of the stock of tissue samples collected by the U.S. National Park Service, including California condors and endangered Karner blue butterflies.

It is difficult to imagine the treasures the steel canisters hold, and I ask Feinstein, a botanist by training, whether I can look inside one. She puts on plastic goggles and thick rubber gloves and steps onto a small platform connected to the six-foot vat. As she opens its lid, a thick white fog spills over the sides. Inside the vat it’s cold enough to freeze a piece of fruit so solidly that it would smash like glass.

Feinstein invites me to step onto the platform, warning me not to inhale the vapor too deeply. I see inside the vat what looks like a giant Trivial Pursuit pie with six sections; each section holds nine metal racks. With a gloved hand, Feinstein turns the pie and pulls a rack out, revealing thirteen white boxes stacked one on top of the other. Inside each box are a hundred two-inch vials, each labeled with a bar code and serial number. Using forceps, Feinstein picks one from a box at random. “This is number 110029,”she says, reading the bar code.

We walk to her office in the next room, and she opens up the collection’s database on a computer. “Here it is,”she says. “110029 is a mosquito from the New York City Department of Health.”We laugh. From a collection whose mission is to be the largest and most comprehensive array of genetic diversity of life on the planet, Feinstein has randomly picked a sample that might have been plucked from a puddle not far from where we are sitting.

One of the first individuals to recognize that the world’s genetic diversity was in need of saving was an Austrian geneticist and plant breeder, Otto Frankel. Born in 1900, Frankel was a young Communist who came to be known as the prophet of genetic-resources conservation in the 1960s. Frankel believed that humankind’s impact on genetic diversity was on so great a scale that we had “acquired evolutionary responsibility” and must develop what he called an evolutionary ethic. “Genetic wildlife conservation makes sense only in terms of an evolutionary timescale,”he said in 1974. “Its sights must reach into the distant future.”

A year after Frankel delivered this message in Berkeley, several biologists at the San Diego Zoo began collecting and freezing tissue samples of wildlife for what they called the Frozen Zoo.They cryopreserved sperm, eggs, and embryos from rare individuals to be used in an array of assisted reproductive techniques. Since its inception, the Frozen Zoo has gathered tissue samples from more than 10,000 animals representing over 1,000 species, and as scientists create ever more sophisticated technologies to use in assisted reproduction and cloning, the collection has become a freezer from which scientists hope entire animals can be resurrected. 

Just over forty years after Frankel’s call for the development of an evolutionary ethic, the cryopreservation of the world’s biodiversity is in considerable fashion, the enthusiasm for preserving genetic materials akin to the nineteenth-century zeal for herbariums, zoos, and natural history museums. In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution began building a new facility with the capacity to preserve 4.2 million specimens. The International Barcode of Life project is a consortium of genetic repositories whose goal is to create 5 million barcode records from the DNA of 500,000 species. The Genome 10K Project is collecting tissue and DNA samples from about 17,000 species in order to sequence 10,000 genomes for analysis; the announcement of the initiative called it the biggest scientific study of molecular evolution ever proposed. There are now hundreds of frozen genetic banks around the world holding samples that provide snapshots of moments in history that might otherwise be lost: frozen water samples of a wetland might reveal microbes that are critical for restoring the ecosystem a hundred years from now.

In an era of anthropogenic global warming, preserving life in man-made freezers is both prudent and ironic, not a solution in and of itself, but a last resort. Consider the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. For generations, the Norwegians have referred to Svalbard, a frozen archipelago in the Arctic Circle, as ultima Thule, “the ends of the earth.”But in 2008, the Norwegian government blasted the permafrost of Svalbard in order to build a doomsdayvault designed to hold and preserve millions of seeds representing the world’s agricultural genetic diversity. Like the Frozen Zoo, the Cryo Collection, and other gene repository initiatives around the globe, the vault in Svalbard is designed to last far into the future, until a time when scientists will have miraculous uses, now impossible to predict, for its holdings.

Over the course of a few months, I make several visits to the Cryo Collection, and every time, after I leave the laboratory, I visit the upper floors of the museum to look at the exhibits. Standing in front of the fossils of extinct species—ambiguous dogs and ruminant horses—I try to focus my thoughts on the transience of so many life forms and the significance of the phenomenon of extinction. In the Wallace Wing of Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives, I look at dimly lit dioramas of African mammals, and it strikes me that the instinct to freeze these scenes of wildlife in time isn’t so different from the instinct that created the collection in the basement beneath me. The visionary behind the Hall of African Mammals was Carl Akeley, a biologist, big-game hunter, taxidermist, and photographer whose obsession was Africa. Akeley believed that he had to preserve the continent’s charismatic giraffes, lions, and rhinos, in order to draw attention to the disappearance of the African landscape. “The old conditions, the story of which we want to tell,”he wrote in 1926, “are now gone, and in another decade the men who knew them will all be gone.”

To the modern eye, gorged on IMAX, Akeley’s dioramas seem a little dispirited and artificial. But at the time they were revealed to the public, they were considered the height of realism. In the decades following his death, Akeley’s fears about Africa’s wildlife were realized. There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas in the wild. Northern white rhinos are down to three. Lions have lost 90 percent of their range. But Akeley’s animals are still frozen in time, preserved for future generations to look at.

The Cryo Collection collapses space and time into two-inch vials—I don’t know if what I’m looking at is a whale or a mosquito—but it isn’t so different: both are acknowledgments that time is slipping by, sometimes so fast we have to hit the freeze button before things disappear.

This article is adapted from M. R. O’Connor’s book Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things, from St. Martin’s Press.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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