With time-intensive captive breeding programs and hard fought habitat protection plans as the backbones to wildlife preservation today, saving endangered species from the brink of extinction has never been easy work. But thanks to advances in stem cell technology, modern conservationists may soon be trading in their sweat-soaked field clothes for lab coats.
Rajneesh Verma, a PhD student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has begun pioneering a new approach to species preservation -- one that uses the cutting edge of science to bushwhack through some of the roughest regions of conservation biology. Harvesting small tissues samples from living Snow leopards, Verma has managed to produce embryonic stem-like cells that just might allow for scientists to artificially grow copies of the endangered species in a laboratory.
“Once embryonic stem-like cells are created, they can be use as a donor cell to increase the efficiency of cloning or can be matured into eggs or sperm – making them essential building blocks for assisted reproductive technologies,” Verma tells Study Melbourne.
In other words, the two components thought key to producing new offspring of an endangered animal -- a fertile mother and father of the sames species -- may not be so necessary after all.
Although Snow leopards aren't the most imperiled species on the planet today, Verma's interest in preserving big cats developed from his childhood growing up in India. “Cats are supposed to have nine lives, but with all the threats currently facing endangered wild cats, we wanted to give them a tenth!” says Verma.
“People are trying to save the habitat but poachers are still there, so we need a new solution. No one has successfully used assisted reproduction for tigers, leopard and jaguar, but I had to give it a go. Hopefully, in future I would be able to use these cells to help preserve these wild cats."
If the researcher's experiments prove successful, it could very likely have implications on the conservation strategies currently in place for a whole host of other species teetering on the brink of extinction -- particularly for those for whom captive breeding programs are impossible due to a limited populations.
But, for as much as Verma's lab-based studies may be on the cutting edge of science, the front line of conservation is still in the field among those working tirelessly to preserve those species from the harmfull human activities which are threatening their long term survival. After all, before we must bend the rules of nature for good, it behoves us to try to remove the obstacles which might impede them.