How can embryonic stem cells save endangered species?

It might sound more science fiction than science fact, but soon many of the world’s most endangered species could find their lineages saved via the preservation of their most valuable genetic material–embryonic stem cells–in cryobanks, ready to be used in future cloning or other assisted reproduction techniques.

The potential breakthrough was made by a team at Monash University in Australia, who, for the first time ever, managed to produce embryonic stem-like cells from the tissue of an adult snow leopard, a species whose numbers are estimated to be between 3,500 and 7,000, and falling.

What are embryonic stem cells and why are they so important?

Embryonic stem cells are nature’s magic bullets, a general-purpose type cell that can grow into any type of cell in the origin animal’s body. For humans, that means embryonic stem-cells could be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, rebuild bones, and replace damaged organs. And included in the types of cells that embryonic stem cells can become are gametes–or sex cells. Sex cells that can be used in assisted reproduction techniques, sperm cell fertilizing egg cell, and leading to viable embryos that can be placed in surrogate mothers at the appropriate time.

The development made at Monash University–producing a type of embryonic stem cell from adult tissue–is significant due to the difficulty of obtaining reproductive cells, even from animals in captivity.

Good news, then? Yes and no. Knowing that extinct might not necessarily mean forever anymore will be a great relief for anyone who cares about species conservation. However, without habitat protection, even if these species can be rebred in the laboratory, the only places they will end up is in zoos and private collectors’ playhouses. And that’s if they can be artificially reproduced, a big question mark remaining over how close a match the surrogate mother species needs to be for the offspring to be viable. Not to mention the ethical issues . . .

The most rational thing to do would be to better protect our natural wildernesses–and the species contained therein. Maybe that would require a new kind of capitalism though. Occupy Nature anyone?

Image Credit: Wiki Commons

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