The future of the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia) could be less dark since researchers found a way to produce embryonic stem-like cells from the tissue of an adult leopard.
These induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells behave like embryonic stem cells and can differentiate into all the cell types in the body, also reproductive cells. It could mean a breakthrough in snow leopard conservation, because it is foreseen that it enables, in principle, the use of genetic material of all living snow leopards to reproduce this beautiful big cat.
So far, the success of the efforts to prevent the snow leopard from going extinct have been jeopardised by the possibility of inbreeding. The small size of the remaining population in the wild, as well as in captivity, makes the gene pool smaller. This reduced genetic diversity can lead to reduced fertility or subfertility. Taking into account that endangered feline species are often difficult to breed both in captivity and under natural conditions, and the difficulty of obtaining reproductive cells, or gametes, even from animals in captivity, explains the enthusiasm of the scientists about the results of their research.
This is the first time that iPS cells have been derived from the somatic cells of any feline or endangered species, though successful iPS cell production of rodents, primates, dogs, sheep, horses, pigs and cattle have been reported before.
The study, published in Theriogenology, is part of the PhD project of Rajneesh Verma, supervised by Dr Paul Verma, both from the Monash Institute of Medical Research in Australia.