The University of Gerogia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center (RBC) is in the process of creating what they call a “frozen zoo”, genetic storage center that may help save endangered big cats and other species from extinction down the road. The plan comes from RBC’s Director Steven Stice and animal and dairy science assistant professor Franklin West.
The practice involves extracting cells from the skin of the animal, which is sedated, in a non-invasive procedure reports CNN. Researchers then introduce a series of specialized reprogramming genes into the cells which turns them into stem cells, giving the team a foundation to create sperm or eggs with.
Sperm has already been made from pig stem cells, and Stice and West are now expecting big cats to be up next, since scientists already have a solid understanding of the big cat family’s genetic makeup. In fact, the team has already given the procedure to “Jalal”, a Sumatran tiger that was euthanized at the zoo in 2010, and a clouded leopard named “Moby” who died in 2013. Though as species within the family get closer to extinction, RBC hopes to save them as soon as possible. The Florida panther is currently one of their top priorities.
“Every year one of these animals gets hit by a car — and they’re at a point where they’re breeding brothers and sisters together because the gene pool has shrunk,” said West.
The cells are stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen until they are reprogrammed into stem cells, meaning they may be held for centuries without degrading.
“Essentially the genetics are immortal,” West explained. “You could go in 20, 30, 200 years theoretically, you could thaw these stem cells out, and turn them into sperm and eggs.” He added that the storage method doesn’t take up much space either, saying “It would take two [small] boxes to essentially store a whole population.”
The new process is on the path to replace current breeding techniques used with endangered species, which researchers say are typically done within the confines of a zoo and can end up damaging the species’ genes, interfering with the creature’s behaviour, or even cause them to lose their habitats if they were plucked from the wild to breed.
RBC is also looking to crowdfunding for donations, rather than trying to get a research grant. The idea comes from the center’s marketing and development coordinator, Charlene Betoruney, who has a background in hospital fundraising.
“With the GeorgiaFunder, I saw a great opportunity for us to tap into monetary resources left by the gaps of industry and government funding.” she said. “This type of ‘interactive funding’ also allows our research teams a greater level of transparency and engagement with the general public.” It also promotes what Betourney called “real-time” science: “finding the underlying cause of a problem and bringing resources quickly together to solve it.”
This form of funding would also mean updates via social media websites like Facebook and Instagram.
The team is quite passionate about this goal, not only because of its importance to preserving wildlife, but also because many of them are self-described animal fanatics.
“I’ve always loved nature, I enjoy taking my daughter to the zoo all the time,” said West. “I think the natural environment is one of those things that make life worth living.”