AboutZoos, Since 2008


A brighter future for endan­gered snow leop­ards with stem cells

pub­lished 24 Jan­u­ary 2012 | mod­i­fied 07 April 2012

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.

snow leopard

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.

By gen­er­at­ing these stem cells, we’ve taken the first step in cre­at­ing repro­duc­tive cells from adult tis­sues of an endan­gered ani­mal. In the future, we aim to har­ness the poten­tial of the iPS cells and cre­ate off-​spring. This would help save species from extinction.
As they were able to induce pluripo­tency in nor­mal somatic cells using a new approach to pro­duce embry­onic stem-​like cells all avail­able somatic can deliver the ever so needed genetic diver­sity. When this tech­nique can be intro­duced in the endan­gered snow leop­ard breed­ing pro­grammes, the genetic diver­sity may increase enor­mously. The­o­ret­i­cally the gene pool will not be lim­ited any­more to just those ani­mal that want to breed, but using iPS cells and for instance in vitro fer­til­i­sa­tion give access to greater stock. In fact, the whole avail­able pop­u­la­tion could be used, as long as viable somatic cells can be obtained. In this study the somatic cell came from tis­sue sam­ples that were col­lected from the ear pin­nae of snow leop­ards, which had died of nat­ural causes or were euthanised due to health-​related prob­lems in Mogo zoo in Australia.

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.

(Sources: The­ri­ogenol­ogy, 01.01.2012; Sci­enceAl­ert, 24.01.2012)

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