Stem Cells May One Day Revive Species From Extinction

stem cell rhino photo
Photo: derekkeats / cc

With countless endangered animals teetering on the brink of extinction throughout the world, the work of preservation has never been more important. But as conservationists work tirelessly to mitigate the numerous dangers which threaten to eliminate entire species altogether, others are exploring advances in medical technology which could hold the key to reviving them in case that happens. Scientists from The Scripps Research Institute at the San Diego Zoo have begun collecting stem cells from endangered species in the hopes that, if all else fails, they may one day get another crack at existence.As medical research continues to shed light on the potentially revolutionary breakthroughs that stem cells could one day make in treating injuries and diseases in human patients, scientists have begun to realize the potential impact they could have on other animals as well. Along with being used to treat conditions such as infertility and diabetes in non-human species, researches believe that they may actually allow for the revival of extinct animals in the not-too-distant future.

With that in mind, scientists from Scripps are collecting these undefined cells to create what they're calling a 'stem cell zoo', made up of material from the planet's most precarious creatures.

According to LiveScience, stem cells from two critically endangered species, a drill primate and white rhino from the San Diego Zoo, have already been gathered:

Both animals, the researchers said, were chosen because they could benefit from stem cells now. For instance, the drill primate suffers from diabetes when in captivity, and stem cell-based treatments for diabetes being researched in humans suggest the same may work in these primates.

The rhinoceros was chosen because it is one of the most highly endangered species on the planet, with only seven animals, all in captivity, in existence (two of which are in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). They haven't reproduced in several years, and because the population is so small there is a lack of genetic diversity, which could affect their survival.

If the researchers can use the stem cells to make sperm and eggs from skin cells of deceased animals in the frozen zoo, they could reintroduce some genetic diversity into the population, while also increasing its size.

But even more than giving a boost to animal populations that so desperately need one, stem cells could do much more yet, for those that have been wiped out entirely.

"Stem cell technology provides some level of hope that they won't have to become extinct even though they've been completely eliminated from their habitats," says Oliver Ryder, of the San Diego Zoo.

It is not without a bit of sad irony, however, that in a world where such advanced technologies exists to one day revive species from extinction, the often avoidable activities which threaten them have not yet been overcome.

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