Skin cells collected at Kansas City Zoo may prove vital to preserving endangered species


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Research similar to the movie “Jurassic Park” is happening locally, and it could lead to extinct animals one day making a return.

FOX4 News is examining the cutting-edge partnership between the Kansas City Zoo and the Frozen Zoo in San Diego that could also preserve endangered species.

The western black rhino was powerful and majestic, but now, it’s gone from the Earth.

The rhino’s extinction just years ago deeply hurt Kirk Suedmeyer, the director of animal health and conservation research at the Kansas City Zoo.

“It was in the paper on page four in the bottom corner because other things take priority, and that’s unfortunate,” Suedmeyer said.

Suedmeyer has dedicated his life to conservation. But what if these animals, gone now, could make a comeback?

“This is a sterile media, and it has preservatives so the cells stay alive,” Suedmeyer said.

Skin samples, like the one Suedmeyer showed FOX4 News, could be the key.

For more than 30 years, Marlys Houck has served as curator at the Frozen Zoo.

“From Kansas City we’ve received over 600 individuals,” Houck said.  “They are actually the largest contributor to the Frozen Zoo skin cell collection other than the San Diego Zoo itself.”

The skin is preserved in liquid nitrogen at minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit, frozen in time for decades. It’s conservation meeting modern science.

In August, San Diego was the first facility in the world to successfully clone a Przewalski’s horse.  DNA of a male had been cryopreserved for 40 years, and they used another horse as a surrogate mother.

Remarkable, but Houck said the Frozen Zoo is so much more.

“The cells that we put into the bank today should be there long beyond us,” Houck said. “No one will remember who we are, but they will know that there were people who banked these cells that will be used in future generations.”

Back in town, Skokie, the North American river otter, is one of the first faces you see entering the KC Zoo.

“If you look over his shoulder, you can see a little square patch of hair that’s missing,” Suedmeyer said. “And that is where we took the skin biopsy, and we also took stem cells from him.”

Earlier this month, Suedmeyer used the same scientific techniques on a family of red pandas. It’s possible the skin samples taken could one day be used to preserve this endangered species.

Suedmeyer said humanity has no choice for them and so many other animals.

“We have a responsibility to do it,” Suedmeyer said.  “And 100 years ago, I don’t know how many white tail deer were walking on this land right here. We took that part away and we have to return the favor.”

After all, it could mean future generations see animals like the western black rhino back in the wild.  And a partnership between Kansas City and the Frozen Zoo just may make the difference.

“Participation in the Frozen Zoo gives us a future hope, and what better time to have hope than during the [COVID-19] pandemic?” Suedmeyer said. 

For more information on the Frozen Zoo, visit its website.

You can find information on the Kansas City Zoo here.



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