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Two of only seven Northern White Rhinoceroses left in the world munch mudbathe on a hot summer day. The species has been selected for a stem-cell based cloning effort, that has thus far proven successful.  (Source: The San Diego Zoo)

The Drill primate is closely related to man, but mankind may push its relative to extinction. The Drill was also selected for the project, with researchers hoping to cure the diabetes that's afflicting much of the small remaining population.  (Source: The San Diego Zoo)

Oliver Ryder, Ph.D, director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, is working to transform his collection of 800 highly endangered species' frozen cells into stem cells, which could be used for cloning and gene therapies. With the help of the Scripps Research Institute he's already created viable lines of Northern White Rhino and Drill stem cells, the first two "residents" in his high-tech zoo.  (Source: The San Diego Zoo)
Technique could improve the genetic diversity of living animals or even clone dead species

Nature can be a cruel mother.  In the history of the Earth extinction has been as constant a reality as the plodding march of evolution.  The loss of biodiversity has been picking up to the pace where some researchers say the world is on the brink of a mass extinction event.  And the primary culprit is man.

I. Inspiration -- Using Stem Cells to Save Critically Endangered Species

From loss of habitat to poaching to pollution, mankind is making life for many species -- particularly large animals -- a living hell.  In response, conscious efforts have been made to protect a growing number of endangered species.  However, as 
Oliver Ryder, PhD, the director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, comments, "The best way to manage extinctions is to preserve species and their habitats, but that's not working all the time."

As a last ditch alternative to traditional conservation techniques, Professor Ryder's lab has paired with a team led by Jeanne Loring
, PhD, professor of developmental neurobiology at the The Scripps Research Institute to create stem cells [press release] to help conserve critically endangered species.

The project follows in the footsteps of research to induce "pluripotency" in human skin cells
.  Pluripotent cells, better known as stem cells, can differentiate into a variety of cells, from muscle to bone growing to nerve.  There's also increasing hope that they can be combined with modern cloning techniques to yield viable offspring, when the resulting stem cell is implanted in the genetically cleansed, unfertilized egg cell of a closely related species.  Efforts to clone prized livestock are already progressing nicely, igniting an inevitable bioethics debate.

But there's little debate about the value of the Scripps Research project.

The project looks to solve two critical problems.  One is what to do when a species becomes totally extinct.  In these cases, cloning may hold the key to restoration efforts.  As second problem is how to deal with the potentially fatal loss of biodiversity in small highly endangered species.  Via gene therapy with stem cells, research hope to reverse the genetic disease that afflict such populations.

II. Process Proves Surprisingly Straightforward

Fortuitously Professor Ryder's staff had already been building a bank of frozen skin cell samples of over 800 endangered species.  So when the project began he had an ample supply of cells to try to induce into pluripotency.

Professors Ryder and Loring focused their efforts on the Drill, one of the most highly endangered species and the Northern White Rhinoceros, a highly endangered subspecies.  The Northern White Rhino was selected because only 7 specimens are known to be living in the world (two reside at the San Diego Zoo's wildlife park).  The Drill was selected both due to its similarity to humans and because specimens in captivity frequent suffered from diabetes, due to limited biodiversity.

Initially the researchers thought they would have to identify new genes in order to induce pluripotency.  But thanks to the marvelous mechanisms of evolution these mammals -- including the rhino, which is relatively distant in its relation to man -- used almost the same pluripotency genes as man.  Thus it was shockingly straightforward to create a stem cell population, though grueling due to the low rate of cell survival that comes inherent to the current state of induced pluripotency research.

III. Researchers Work to Create Stem Cell "Zoo"

The successful creation of stem cells opens the door to new research, including curing diabetes in the Drill and cloning Northern White Rhinos.  In the rhinos' case, researchers believe they may be able to produce both sperm and egg cells, an approach would likely lead to more viable zygotes than the traditional approach of cleansing a similar species' egg and injecting material from the target species' stem cell into it.

The current research has been supported by the Esther O'Keefe Foundation, the Millipore Foundation, and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  Given the success, the two teams are looking to expand funding to finance an entire stem cell "zoo".

States Professor Ryder, "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. I think that if humankind wants to save this species, we're going to have to develop new methodologies."

A paper on the work was published
 [abstract] in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature Methods.

The project is fascinating and could offer a timely accompaniment to similar ongoing work to create wildlife parks populated by cloned extinct species, such as the Dodo, Tasmanian Wolf
, and Woolly Mammoth.



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A waste of good stem cells...
By quiksilvr on 9/5/2011 5:00:30 PM , Rating: -1
We lose thousands of species of animals, plants, insects and bacteria every year. If a species is critically endangered, perhaps its time to let it go naturally instead of playing God and bringing back extinct or near extinct animals? Seriously, have we learned nothing from Michael Crichton? It would be even more devastating saving species/bringing species back instead of letting them rest in peace.




RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Copaseticbob on 9/5/2011 5:25:22 PM , Rating: 3
You may need to read the article again.
They are talking about unnatural causes of extinction. Its not a change in environment, natural disaster, etc.
And so, in these cases, it is most certainly NOT more dangerous then letting them go extinct, as it will have major consequences on the environment, which hasn't changed and still has some level on dependence on them.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Jeremy87 on 9/5/2011 5:43:05 PM , Rating: 3
Well, in a way, humans are part of nature. I'm sure some species were responsible for the extinction of many others in the past too.
While making some species disappear, we also make room for new ones to form. Of course this takes time, so in the short term it will look bad. We are just missing the big picture because it's far larger than our short lifespans.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Copaseticbob on 9/5/2011 6:29:48 PM , Rating: 2
I guess you could argue that, but I think it would be more applicable 80,000 years ago vs. modern human society.
I think the big difference in the scenarios is time; In the more natural extinctions (with exception of powerful natural disasters, which take a while to balance out) take a little longer, where currently we are killing off animals at a rate that nature cant compensate in a balanced way.
A good example is bees. Do you know eff'd the world would be without bees? Now, these animals may not be quite the cornerstone creature that bees are, but are part of a system that we shouldn't have messed with to begin with.

Agreed on your last point though, even if they die, and we die, over many thousands and millions of years, everything will balance out again.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By quiksilvr on 9/5/11, Rating: 0
RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Shig on 9/5/2011 8:26:44 PM , Rating: 1
This has very little to do with 'saving' animals. What these companies want is the genetic information on file, information they can patent and profit off of, nothing more.

Capitalism doesn't give a crap about protecting nature.


By MrBlastman on 9/6/2011 2:09:25 PM , Rating: 2
Here's the thing about Stem cells and I'll gladly take a reduction by one point to start this reply: Stem cells, while this research into saving near-extinct animals seems arbitrary, actually are leading a new push in biological sciences towards curing afflictions, ailments and diseases in all of us.

For example, you mention curing cancer. The leading methods of fighting cancer, at least, on the cutting edge, involve both stem cell therapies for some types (leukemias) and through viral re-engineered assaults in others which implant markers into cells that allow our own immune systems to destroy them.

You mention curing Alzheimer's--well, that one is a little more difficult given the marred and deformed proteins that attack the neural and fatty structures. However, through the use of stem cells, it might be possible to buy the suffering more time by stimulating reconstruction of damaged tissues in their brains.

How about curing other gene-related illnesses? We can use stem cells and other gene-therapies potentially to help solve these as well.

Yes, what these researchers are doing is spitting in the face of natural selection, but I would be remiss if I were you to completely sluff them off as a waste of time. Stem Cell based research is incredibly important and the potential benefits are tremendous if we follow through with these studies.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Paj on 9/7/2011 7:47:18 AM , Rating: 2
http://books.google.com/books?id=UFVmiSAr-okC&pg=P...

Extinctions have been accelerating, and there is a well established causal link between that and the rise of agriculture, industrial society, and human population.

All species form part of an ecosystem. Remove an entire species from the ecosystem, and the balance changes, often with undesirable short or long term results.

The loss of biodiversity is one of the key environmental challenges the world currently faces. It affects nearly all areas of human society - public health, disease vectors, agriculture, industry, access to clean water, just to name a few.


By Reclaimer77 on 9/6/2011 6:23:13 PM , Rating: 1
There is no such thing as an "unnatural" cause. You can't have it both ways. You either believe in adaptation, evolution, and natural selection or you don't.

I have to agree with the OP. This has the potential for causing unpredictable catastrophic harm, and it raises moral and ethical questions that's best left answered in science fiction.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By geddarkstorm on 9/6/2011 1:36:27 PM , Rating: 1
1000s lost per year? I don't know where you're getting your figure from, but it is catagorically fictitious. Extinction rates have been grossly overestimated. See this recent nature paper http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v473/n7347/fu...

Moreover, no claims of extinction rates have ever been observed empirically; it's all been based on equations and hypothetical species (and densities). We have never observed high losses of known species anywhere.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Paj on 9/7/2011 7:53:14 AM , Rating: 2
Apart from now, you mean?


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By geddarkstorm on 9/7/2011 5:17:08 PM , Rating: 2
Did you look at the Nature paper? The actual scientific, peer-reviewed paper? I am, as they are, talking about "now". I wish people would stop getting their biodiversity and extinction rate information from computer simulations like SimEarth, and Greenpeace talking points.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Paj on 9/8/2011 6:04:51 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, the paper deals with species lost to habitat loss. That is only one factor affecting it. I think the paper makes a good case personally, but its scope is narrow.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Paj on 9/7/2011 8:01:15 AM , Rating: 1
So what's your solution? Just let everything die? Are you aware of the manifold catastrophes that would arise if bees were allowed to 'die naturally'?

*slow clap*

Most species aren't dying naturally. Were destroying their habitats.

And its not the same thing as bringing dinosaurs back, you must be smarter than that.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By geddarkstorm on 9/7/2011 5:26:12 PM , Rating: 2
And have the bees died out? No. Do you even know what was causing the colony collapse disorder (CCD)? I will tell you just in case.

In all CCD samples tested, it was found the bees were attacked by a combination of invertebrate iridescent virus type 6 (IIV-6) and the fungus Nosema ceranae. That's what was killing them. Just like with the frogs, it was mainly due to a fungus. In fact, there's an emerging, lethal fungal disease that's been coming after us lately called Crytpococcus neoformans. It's very localized at the moment, but has the CDC rather worried.

If there's one kingdom of animals on this planet you should not underestimate, it's the fungi.

Yes, we humans must be aware of the damage we cause, and mitigate those effects as much as -reasonably- possible. We must act as good stewards. But, the only way to do that is to be calm and sensible, not giving into baseless hysteria about extinction rates and habitat loss. If you do, then you won't be able to help the species that actually need it. You'll be too busy chasing your own tail to be useful.


By geddarkstorm on 9/7/2011 5:28:53 PM , Rating: 2
Oops, sorry, that's Cryptococcus gattii that's coming after and killing healthy humans. Neoformans only really attacks the immunocompromised. An old story, but read more on gattii here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/04/10...

Hopefully it won't become any more virulent.


RE: A waste of good stem cells...
By Paj on 9/8/2011 6:26:55 AM , Rating: 2
Well, no one's really sure for certain, but the fungi has been identified as a possible cause. There likely to be many others, with a very complex interplay between them. More research needed!

Fungi can be pretty scary stuff. Its affecting some extremely rare tress in the southwest of Australia too - these trees are considered on par with the sequoias in terms of their age and scarcity.

My point was that letting species die 'naturally' is not a good idea. It seems we agree on that point.


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