Stem cells and reproductive technologies such as In vitro Fertilization (IVF) have sparked a new hope among conservation scientists, as a viable way to rescue animal populations from the brink of extinction such as the Vaquita and other critically endangered species.
Conventional breeding programs in both the wild and in human care can be ineffective and remain difficult at best for a number of endangered species. This is largely due to a lack of reproductive research and understanding in most animals, making conventional breeding difficult due to the lack of information about gestation, risk factors, reproductive cycles menses timing and more. Additionally, many species are reduced down to under 100 individuals which also lowers genetic diversity and increases the frequency of inbreeding. Together with the destruction of habitats, shrining lands, anthropomorphic factors, and even climate change has made conventional breeding extremely difficult to consider as a viable option as a means for endangered species to repopulate and reach self-sustaining numbers.
Last November, researchers lead by Dr. Katsuhiko Hayashi made leaps and bounds by engineering artificial egg cells from reprogrammed mouse skin cells. This could be a potential new direction for maintaining endangered populations and prevent them from becoming extinct. This is accomplished by converting and reprograming stem cells info primordial germ cells which then can be a precursor for both sperm and egg cells. These artificially-derived cells became fertile and functional sperm and egg cells when these cells were injected into the testis and ovaries of living mice. Further studies showed that these cells gave rise to mouse pups that were completely healthy and fertile.
With this exciting advancement, scientists hope to continue to work in animal models with the hope that it could one day translate into saving endangered animals, such as many rhino species, from the brink of extinction. In fact, Zoo Dvůr Králové in the Czech Republic assembled a consortium of mainly European researchers, stem cell experts, reproductive specialists, biotechnology industry professionals, wildlife and zoological experts, and conservationists called Conservation by Cellular Technologies to facilitate the world’s first collection of natural and artificially engineered gametes. Fertilized via IVF would use these gametes to begin studies. Artificial gametes would be engineered from frozen tissue formerly been collected living and deceased stored at zoological biobanks, such as San Diego Zoo’s frozen zoo.
If successful, this work could spark stem cell and IVF conservation sits to pop up around the world. This could potentially provide an infinite source of artificial gametes and help to alleviate constraints on a populations gene pool increasing its diversity. Scientist are working diligently to create a protocol to do exactly that. This consortium and technological advances could mean that stem cells and IVF is a new scientific road map that may lead to the first delivery of an endangered animal produced form fertilization with an artificially-engineered gamete within the next decade. This method is a promising advancement that could protect many critically endangered animals such as the Northern White Rhinoceros and Sumatran Rhinoceros, the Amur Leopard, the Bornean Orangutan, the South American Giant Otter, the Black-fotted Ferret, the Pangolin, the Peruvian Black Spider Monkey and Vaquita, just to name a few of the species that could benefit. This could be a game changer and something definitely worth keeping up with!