Defrosting the Future

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

It’s not every day that you get to use real scientific equipment in a real lab. Last week, on our visit to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, we were lucky enough to be able to spend the afternoon with the Reproductive Physiology Division. We worked with Nicole Ravida, research coordinator, Carly Young, senior research technician, Kyle Hatashita, research intern, and Barbara Durrant, the director of the Reproductive Physiology Division. Our focus of the day was sperm, specifically, Tule elk sperm.

Our samples were obtained from the famous Frozen Zoo®, the Institute’s storage area where reproductive cells and other genetic material from rare and endangered species are frozen and preserved in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius, or -321 degrees Fahrenheit. We were all fascinated from the moment they took the specimens out of the metal container, which was so cold that white gas billowed out of it as it was opened. We waited with bated breath as the tubes of sperm were defrosted. Then came the part I had been looking forward to: using the microscopes.

Microscopes are used to look close up at the sperm cells to see if the sperm cells are active or not, and if so, how much they are moving. An important part of the freezing and thawing process is trying to find a way to do so without harming the sperm, also known as cryopreservation. This is done by freezing the sperm in a cryoprotectant, such as glycerol. This liquid helps to prevent the sample from becoming damaged when the water in the cells turns into ice crystals.

The Reproductive Physiology team works hard to find ways to preserve sperm cells. The sperm needs to be frozen safely when it is put into the Frozen Zoo. If a species were to become critically endangered, or even extinct, the sperm might help to bring back the population. It is vital for the public to know about protecting animal species and to stay informed on the importance of reproductive physiology, as the frozen specimens that are worked with there could play a key role in the future of animal conservation. Our trip to the Beckman Center for Conservation Research was exciting and taught me a lot about the importance of the freezing and thawing process of the sperm, and how it will help species continue to thrive.

Molly, Real World Team (Week 4)