Watch CBS News

Endangered species are dying out on Earth. Could they be saved in outer space?

Climate change may drive species extinct
Climate change may drive millions of species to extinction 21:52

Plants and animals are dying off at an unprecedented rate on Earth. Some scientists are looking to outer space for a solution. 

The idea is called a lunar biorepository, a facility that maintains and stores plant and animal cells. But instead of on Earth, this would be on the moon. 

Why the moon?  

"There's no place on Earth cold enough to do it," explained Mary Hagedorn, a senior research scientist with the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. 

Hagedorn has spent the last two decades studying and theorizing modern ways to try and save coral reefs. She is an expert in cryopreservation, the process of freezing biological materials like animal cells at a temperature so cold, it allows them to remain frozen but alive for hundreds of years. 

"Let's imagine that, unfortunately, climate change wiped out 90% of the Great Barrier Reef. Well, in 100 years, we might be able to just give them back all that diversity," Hagedorn said. 

Her inspiration is the Arctic Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway It is a biorepository that keeps seeds at just under 0 degrees Fahrenheit due to the natural temperature of the permafrost. The low temperature and moisture levels in the vault keep the seeds viable for long periods of time. 

"Svalbard has done a really great job of saying, 'OK, we need to preserve seeds. Everything on Earth depends on seeds. And how are we going to do that?'" Hagedorn said.  

Hagedorn and her team want to do something similar for animal cells, but they need colder temperatures. At the lunar poles, where deep craters are shaded, temperatures reach as low as minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. 

Preserving these animal skin cells, called fibroblast cells, allows scientists to transform them into sex cells, which is how they clone animals in labs. 

In addition to threatened and endangered animals like the African elephant, green sea turtle and great cats, the team at the Zoo proposes that the lunar biorepository initially include an array of animal species that serve different purposes, including: 

  • Those that modify their environment, like coral, beavers, woodpeckers and earthworms.
  • Pollinators that support the production of food, like bees, moths and bats. 
  • Animals that live in extremely warm, cold or acidic environments, like monarch butterflies, polar bears and nematodes. 
  • Organisms that support the web of life on Earth, like zooplankton, boreal trees and mosses. 

Cryopreserved human cardiac stem cells have also recently been sent to the International Space Station. 

Challenges in space

As a trial, the Zoo collected 10 specimens of the Starry Goby, a fish found in Kane`ohe Bay in Hawaii. The vision is that these cells will be sealed into cryo-packaging and tested under space-like conditions on Earth, followed by a test run on the space station. 

How the Smithsonian plans to create cryopreserved cells and test them in space: 

A diagram showing how the Smithsonian plans to create cryopreserved cells and test them in space.

Teams at the National Science Foundation's National Ecological Observatory Network are also collecting nearly 100,000 animal cell samples every year from 81 sites. NEON's goal is to expand the kinds of cells used in cryopreservation to include sperm and oocytes, which are found in ovaries.  

While a lunar biorepository may be a promising idea for preserving Earth's biodiversity, there are challenges for this program.  

Researchers said one of the most difficult problems posed by a lunar biorepository would be the radiation exposure to samples. Countermeasures to radiation could include antioxidant cocktails, as well as providing physical barriers like water, lead or cement to block radiation.  

Temperatures on the moon's surface, which make freezing possible, are also a concern. 

Certain areas of the moon can reach more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit during the lunar day, which is equivalent to about 14 days on Earth. The much colder temperatures in the craters of the North and South Poles, could make it difficult to transport biomaterials.  

Another challenge is that those areas, known as "permanently shadowed regions," are believed to have large amounts of ice, conditions that would make human monitoring extremely difficult.

The long-term effects of microgravity on cells could also pose a problem.  

Some say seeking a solution on the moon shouldn't be the No. 1 priority. 

"I don't think it's right idea for right now," Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said.  

"I think we really need to focus on protecting more of the natural world, so we don't lose species in the first place," he said. 

A decades-long effort 

Hagedorn isn't the only scientist working to create a biorepository on the moon.  

In 2021, University of Arizona researchers proposed a concept to send an ark filled with 335 million sperm and egg samples to the moon.  

"They're engineers," Hagedorn noted. "So, we're more biologists coming at this. We know how to cryopreserve. We started the sample. But they have a great sense of how to use robots."  

Hagedorn said this is a decades-long effort and that developing a lunar biorepository will require collaboration from an array of nations, agencies, cultural groups and other stakeholders.  

Greenwald said while climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves, the extinction crisis is right there with it.  

"Species are the building blocks of ecosystems. They clean our air, they clean our water, they moderate our climate, they cycle nutrients. We should all be very concerned because the fact that we're losing species at such an accelerated rate really reflects the degradation of the ecosystems they we ourselves depend upon," Greenwald said. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.