In the News: Could stem cells save endangered species?

In a combination of conservation and modern cell biology, scientists have created stem cells from two endangered species, potentially providing a new method of ensuring their survival.

Stems cells are cells that are capable of developing into different kinds of specialised cells, such as blood, nerve or muscle cells. They can also divide indefinitely to give rise to more stem cells.


A new study, published in Nature Methods, reports that two highly endangered species, the northern white rhinoceros and the drill, have become the first endangered animals to have their cells transformed into stems cells.

As fertilised embryos of these species could not be sacrificed to obtain stem cells, they were instead made by "re-programming" frozen skin cells. This brought the cells back to an earlier stage of their development, from which they can be induced to form various specialised cells.

Initially, the applications of this research could be medicinal. For example, if an animal is suffering with a degenerative disease such as diabetes, stem cells could be used to create replacements for the cells that have stopped working. This approach is already being investigated in humans.

However, the stem cells could also potentially be used to make eggs and sperm, which could be used in captive breeding programmes for these and other endangered species.

"Making gametes from stem cells is not routine yet, but there are some reports of it being done with laboratory animals," said Dr Jeanne Loring, one of the researchers.

Although other scientists are looking into cloning endangered species, the research team believe that creating new embryos would be even better. 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."

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