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Jurassic ark
One of the world’s richest women is spending her millions to stockpile the genes of Colonial-era livestock in case of catastrophe

On a hot August afternoon, a station wagon with Connecticut license plates and a back seat crammed with children and beach chairs pulls up to what seems like another nifty tourist stop in Newport. This is on Ocean Drive, a series of roads that wind for miles along the city’s rocky Atlantic coast; the route offers sensational saltwater views, yet only glimpses of the audacious summer mansions of the nation’s old industrial barons, alongside much tamer trophy houses of the newly rich.

The car has stopped next to a setting that seems plucked from the Irish countryside: neatly tended pastures, rocky outcroppings, generous shade trees, cattle grazing behind waist-high stone walls — a widescreen postcard that virtually begs sightseers to hurry on in and bring the kids, too.

But a young man with a slender ponytail, wearing shorts and a T-shirt bearing the logo of the Swiss Village Farm (SVF) Foundation, bends over a car window — no, it’s closed to the public. When the driver seems skeptical, he explains it’s a "scientific" facility. The message is spelled out more bluntly in signs just past the entrance, telling intruders they’ve trespassed on a "biosecure area" and to "please leave immediately." Other signs warn of video surveillance.

The actual goings-on at the 45-acre "farm" are even more exotic than those warnings suggest. Visitors offered official passage may feel they’ve stepped into a summer adventure movie, the kind featuring a secret island where uniformed operatives rush around in go-carts and scientists labor in high-tech labs as they carry out the world-altering fantasy of their fabulously wealthy employer. Indeed, the Newport workers are uniformly decked out in identical T-shirts and shorts, mumbling into two-way radios as they pilot John Deere mini-trucks toward a castle-like cluster of stone buildings that really do contain laboratories financed by one of world’s richest women.


The mission of the Ocean Drive farm isn’t too far from the plot of the 1993 adventure flick Jurassic Park, in which scientists used genetic material miraculously preserved from a bygone era to replicate extinct creatures. But while Jurassic Park reproduced Tyrannosaurus rexes and other dinosaurs, the creatures of Newport’s SVF Foundation are smaller, less threatening, and even downright cuddly: Tennessee fainting goats (a more muscular breed, offering more meat per pound than the average goat), Dutch belted cows (black with a white swath down their side, they were once major milk producers, but now number between 200 and 1000 in the US), and Santa Cruz sheep (according to the SVF Web site, "exceptionally hardy and efficient breeders" that turned out nice wool, but which were nearly eradicated in the 1980s, with only 125 left in the US).

The idea, nonetheless, is the same: that genes from farm animals dating back to the days of Washington and Jefferson can be collected, stored, and used in the future to replicate extinct livestock.

Already, the farm’s scientists have proved they can do it. Last year, they harvested an embryo from the womb of a live Tennessee fainting goat, froze it, implanted it in a modern female goat, and five months later, witnessed the birth of "Chip" — an exact replica of the rare breed.

Besides the common-sense idea of preserving a slice of American history, there’s a practical goal: to stockpile the genetic traits of older breeds so that — following some catastrophe — they can be used to help restore the modern food chain. Agricultural disasters are hardly unknown, after all. The foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak that swept United Kingdom farms in 2001 resulted in the destruction of six million farm animals, mostly to stop the spread of the infection, and cost $10 billion.

Since 2002, the Newport farm has collected more than 640 embryos, along with semen and blood samples — collectively known as "germplasm" — from two kinds of sheep, two strains of goats, and one line of cows. Over a 20-year span, SVF plans to preserve the genetics of 20 different animals in its gleaming tanks of super-cooled nitrogen, selecting species considered most at risk for extinction. As the foundation’s literature says, "The germplasm preserved by SVF Foundation will help protect public health by creating a way to guard the nation’s food supply from accidental or intentional losses of livestock."

But this can also be stated as a question: can older breeds, or at least their genetic components, really make a difference should calamity sweep the country’s vast agricultural herds and flocks? Do yesterday’s farm animals have something to teach today’s super cows, pigs, chickens, and other specialized livestock that have made the United States the world’s agricultural powerhouse?

"It is not how I would spend my money," says Steven A. Zinn, an associate professor of animal sciences at the University of Connecticut, after I described the program. Zinn says it’s not certain what characteristics the older animals have. But other experts, including George Saperstein, a Tufts University veterinary-school professor who serves as the SVF Foundation’s scientific director, say the work is a "gift to mankind."

This gift appears so far to have cost Dorrance Hill Hamilton at least $10 million.


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Issue Date: September 2 - 8, 2005
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