On Saturday Rhode Islanders have a rare opportunity to visit the Swiss Village Foundation in Newport. It’s an organization working to preserve heritage livestock breeds in collaboration with Tufts University. The site opens its doors to the general public just once a year because of concerns about microbes that could hurt the animals living there.
Rhode Island Public Radio’s Education Reporter Elisabeth Harrison arranged special tour to take you inside the foundation’s bucolic campus.
Heading from downtown Newport to Fort Adams State Park, you pass exclusive mansions and country clubs, and tucked among rolling hills, a mysterious sign with gold initials that read S-V-F.
“So we’re walking around the Historic Swiss Village, which is where SVF gets its name,” said Sarah Bowley.
What the name doesn’t tell you is this is a place where scientists are collecting the sperm and embryos from livestock in danger of going extinct.
Sarah Bowley, Program Director for the Swiss Village Foundation, waves her hand toward a collection of quaint, grey stone buildings that house the foundation’s laboratories and administrative offices.
“It was a private farm developed in the early 1900’s by Arthur Curtis James and it was a working farm up until the 1940s.”
The former residence of a wealthy Newporter named Arthur Curtis James, this estate was originally built to look like a Swiss-Italian farming village.
So they had Guernsey cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and it was a gentleman’s folly, so it was a very productive farm, but it wasn’t here necessarily to make money it was more to provide for the Curtis family and his workers, on the farm and his two yachts.”
The estate still has cattle, sheep and goats today, but they’re probably not the same kind that Arthur Curtis James kept. The property now houses a collection of rare and endangered North American livestock and their genetic material.
Inside one of the barns, Bowley stops to point out a large white sheep with a brood of fuzzy copper lambs. Like all of the animals here, this breed has a story.
The lambs are Tunis so they’re actually from North Africa. They were brought in illegally by Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They were imported against regulation to the united states in the 1700s and they’re a fat tail breed, so where camels store water in their humps as everyone knows, these guys store fat in the base of their tails so in times of drought it can be a source of metabolic water to save them from dehydration.
Special genetic traits, like sheep with tails that help out in a drought are exactly what SVF is looking to preserve. A trait like that could become useful, for example, if global warming causes major climate shifts. But there’s something else unusual about these sheep. The mother looks nothing like her lambs. In fact, she’s a completely different breed, a surrogate mom impregnated through a process just like in vitro fertilization for humans. SVF uses host mothers to replicate the situation that might exist if a breed actually went extinct. They want to make sure the genetic samples they’re collecting would work to re-awaken a breed. Just outside the barn, Bowley stops to watch a cow grooming her calf, another surrogate pair.
“They have no idea its not their own 100 percent. They might look a little different but they don’t recognize that. It was born from her, its her baby smells just like her and she raises it as her own,” said Bowley
This tiny calf is a Canadienne, a critically endangered type of cow. There may be only 1,000 left in the world. Bowley estimates that livestock breeds are dying out at a rate of one per month in large part because of the industrialization of agriculture, which favors a small number of breeds suited to mass production. The idea of banking their genetic material for the future came from Tufts University, and it caught the fancy of a wealthy heiress named Dorrance Hamilton. She bought Swiss Villlage in the late 90’s and started the foundation. It’s not clear exactly how an heiress to part of the Campbell’s Soup fortune got interested in farm animals, but one theory is that it all started with an airplane magazine.
“There’s a couple of funny stories behind that. One is that she read in an in-flight that we were losing the fuzzy brown cow, and she didn’t want to see that happen. And when she started looking into the issue she realized that while there are a lot of seed banks that have been established around the world to preserve various kinds of plants, the same thing hadn’t been done yet with animals,” said Bowley.
Inside the cool stone walls of one of the Swiss Village buildings, a former horse barn now serves as a cryogenic laboratory storing thousands of genetic samples from more than 20 types of livestock.
“So those four tanks over there contain the 63,000 plus samples that we’ve collected in the last 10 years. So let me show you those.”
Lab Director Dorothy Roof climbs up on a small stool to reach the top of one of the stainless steel tanks and open it up. As she reaches inside, smoke from the cold liquid nitrogen inside bubbles up around her hands.
The storage system is actually pretty clever. The samples are stored in little hollow tubes that look like drinking straws. So we put one embryo in a tube that looks like that and 100 million sperm cells in a tube that looks like this one.
The tubes are placed in dozens of bright orange vessels suspended inside the tanks, and the foundation keeps at least a four to six week supply of liquid nitrogen on hand in case there’s an emergency like a hurricane. Most of the genetic material is collected on site, usually from animals on loan from heritage breeders.
They’re collected surgically or just cows are collected by standing in a stall up at the barn. And a solution is used to flush the uterus of the animal and the embryos come out in that wash solution. So they come down here and I search for the embryos in a gridded search dish under the microscope, and then we package them in those straws and freeze them.
And so for each breed how many genetic samples are there?
“We set our target numbers so that we could completely regenerate the breed within one generation. So our target numbers are 200-300 embryos per breed and 2000 to 3000 straws of semen.”
Hundreds of embryos and thousands of straws of semen sound like a lot, but in ten years, SVF has already gotten about halfway to their goal of preserving some 30-40 species. Officials here say they have become a model for species preservation around the globe, but their hope is that farmers will increasingly embrace heritage breeds, making their bank of frozen genetic material merely a fail-safe.
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