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A recent study published in Nature Methods reports that the Northern White Rhinoceros and the Drill have become the first endangered animals to have their cells transformed into stem cells. Combining conservation and modern cell biology, scientists have opened a new door for the preservation of endangered species, potentially providing a method of ensuring their survival.
Stem cells are unique cells found in all multicellular organisms that have the capability to develop into different kinds all specialized cells, ranging from blood, nerve or muscle cells. They are also able to divide infinitely to self-renew, continuing to produce more stem cells.
The northern white rhinoceros and the drill, an African short-tailed forest baboon, have become the first two endangered species to have their cells transformed into stem cells. In order to save fertilized embryos of both species, they were instead made by “re-programming” frozen skin cells of each animal.
Through this process the cells were brought back to earlier stages of development from which various forms of specialized cells could be induced. There are various uses of this research that is debated among scientists. Dr. Jeanne Loring, a world-renowned stem cell research who heads the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in California, is one of the researchers of the study.
She believes that creating new embryos through this process is even better than the method of cloning endangered species. According to Dr. Loring, “Cloning has not worked well for endangered species – the frequency of success is very low…here, you have the possibility to make new genetic combinations rather than cloning which simply reproduces existing animals.”
By inducing stem cells to make gametes, or eggs and sperm, test-tube babies of endangered species would become possible. Embryos created this way could potentially be raised by surrogate mothers from closely related species. Dr. Loring reports that though making gametes from stem cells is not yet routine, there are reports of it being down with laboratory animals already.
Other scientists are skeptical about this approach and believe that there needs to be more research, conservation and assistance of endangered species before turning to measures of stem cells. William Holt, a reproductive biologist at the Zoological Society of London, is involved in a collaboration called ‘Frozen Ark’, a project that collects DNA and cells from endangered animals.
He has said that scientists do not know enough about the reproductive biology of animals which is essential to support assisted reproduction programs. “With so few individuals remaining, there is little opportunity to learn more.”
Initially the applications of this research could be strictly medicinal as well. An animal suffering with some form of degenerative disease could benefit from stem cells to create replacements for the cells that have stopped working. This method has continued to be investigated for human use as well.
However, time may be running out for many endangered species that are declining in numbers due to hunting and habitat loss. The northern white rhinoceros, which the research was based on, may only have seven individuals living in captivity left in existence.
While Dr. Loring agrees that much work must still be done before stem cells can be used to save these species, she supports the research and asserts that even if the methods have yet to be perfected, stem cells offer a way of preserving genetic diversity of individual animals. Dr. Loring’s research team plans to replicate their work with the northern white rhinoceros with ten other endangered animals.