The big bull backup

  @FortuneMagazine September 19, 2013: 8:01 AM ET
FIO07 plasm samples

Germ plasm samples (semen, embryos, tissue) stored in vats of liquid nitrogen the size of tubs at a soup kitchen


In a Colorado warehouse, 413,322 straws of bull semen, 3,913 chicken testes and ovaries, and the reproductive assets of thousands of fish are cryogenically frozen in steel vats of liquid nitrogen. They are kept there for the national security of the meat we eat.

The facility is part of the National Animal Germplasm Program, created in 1999 to function as a sort of backup hard drive for the nation's livestock. Some 780,000 vials of reproductive samples are ready to be unfrozen in case of emergency. What kind of emergency? Believe it or not, much of the world's livestock is teetering on the brink -- the genetic demands of large-scale breeding have marginalized some breeds so much that 20% are at risk of extinction. If that problem intensified or if disease wiped out a large swath of Holsteins, it could be disastrous. Harvey Blackburn, a geneticist, says the U.S. government began wondering if the fragile nature of our cows and chickens might pose a real security threat.

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