Using human stem cells to reproduce highly specialized cells such as blood, nerve or muscle cells has been the source of much controversy because of the moral and ethical issues involved.
But what about using non-human stem cells to save endangered species?
For the first time ever, cells from the highly endangered white rhino (pictured above) and drill (an African primate) were transformed into stem cells that could hold the key to the future of their respective species.
The procedure, detailed in a recently published edition of Nature Methods, theorizes that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) may eventually facilitate reintroduction of genetic material into breeding populations.
In endangered populations, there are too few reproductively capable animals to maintain adequate genetic diversity. Even when these species are kept in protective environments, there’s no guarantee that males and females will mate, or that the offspring will survive.
Because of this, the researchers could not use stem cells from fertilized embryos. Instead, stem cells were created by “re-programming” frozen skin cells (ARKive).
That’s why the success of this experiment is so significant.
In addition to medicinal applications, the stem cells could also potentially be used to make eggs and sperm, which could be used to create “test-tube” offspring of white rhinos, drills and other endangered species. If appropriate cells are preserved now, even species that go extinct in the next few years might not be lost forever.
But the technique is far from perfected, and quite expensive. Many experts say that it should only be thought of as a complement to conservation, not an alternative
“The prospects for using these techniques for continuing the genetic lineages of the last few individuals of a species will be a last-ditch effort, after we have failed to protect the species in earlier, simpler, cheaper, and more effective ways,” said Robert Lacy, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Zoological Society.
Image Credit: Flickr - Sarah Depper