The ABTC is the largest tissue bank for wildlife research in the Southern Hemisphere. It contains nearly 150,000 samples of animal and plant samples collected from terrestrial and marine animals.
The samples are carefully managed to ensure their quality is suitable for detailed biological research using molecular genetic technologies. This involves determining the genetic profiles of samples, either indirectly from structural elements of cells and tissues (proteins), or directly from the primary genetic material of the cells (DNA and RNA).
Most ABTC tissues are stored in ultra-freezers, where the temperature is maintained at approximately -70°C. At this temperature, animal cell structures remain intact, making frozen tissues suitable for protein, DNA and RNA analysis. A smaller proportion of the ABTC is maintained in concentrated alcohol — these samples are typically used for DNA analysis only.
The South Australian Museum’s ABTC is a resource of global importance because of its size, its focus on native Australian fauna, the time span over which good quality tissue collection has taken place (more than 30 years), and its well-organised storage system. Tissue samples from introduced species and animals from other regions such as New Guinea are also a feature of the collection.
Collection of ABTC samples began in 1979. Even though DNA analysis was not routine back then, former South Australian Museum scientists Terry Schwaner and Peter Baverstock had the foresight to not only collect animal specimens, but also to freeze tissue samples for genetic analysis. The development of a well-curated collection of high quality frozen tissue samples gives today’s scientists the opportunity to obtain a snapshot of the distributions and genetic makeup of many species — some of which may now be endangered or extinct — from 30–40 years ago.
Tissue collection for the ABTC continues today, under animal ethics guidelines, by virtue of surveys and environmental impact studies by government and private organisations, amateur scientific societies and targeted collecting by scientists with specific research interests.
The clientele serviced from the ABTC includes staff in the Evolutionary Biology Unit, other South Australian Museum staff, researchers from other museums both in Australia and overseas, other State and Commonwealth Government institutions, universities and non-government organisations.
The interaction usually involves a collaborative research effort in which the client contributes material to the collection that is either stored long-term or becomes the subject of an immediate research project. Occasionally frozen material is simply held until the 'owner' can make arrangements for its long-term storage or use somewhere else. Increasingly, other researchers request “grants” from the collection for their own independent research.
Access to material from the ABTC is managed through the ABTC Grant Policy. A fee is charged for 'grants' on an individually negotiated basis. The purpose of the fee is to cover the time spent retrieving tissue samples and some component of the infrastructure costs of maintaining the collection (freezer maintenance and replacements). The fee does not make a charge for the value of the material, as this would contravene State and Federal laws prohibiting commercial trade in wildlife species. The fee does not seek to recover any of the costs incurred in collection of the material.