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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