It looks as though there might finally be some good news for animals threatened with extinction. Through work that could easily have been fished out of a science fiction novel, clever people working in a laboratory based in the Northern suburbs of USA’s San Diego have good reason to believe that the day when animals are genetically reproduced from frozen skin cells is not far off.
San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation has been collecting DNA samples from rare animals since 1972, in the hope that, one day, the tiny frozen flakes could help towards protecting species on the brink of extinction. Back then nobody knew what use the cells could have – the conservationists just had the belief that, one day, science would progress to a level that would allow people to use them for something productive.
And now, after a major break-though in stem-cell technology, it looks as though that day is on the horizon.
The laboratory appearing to be spearheading the revolutionary technology is called The Scripps Research Institute. They describe themselves as a non-profit research organisation that has stood at the forefront of basic biomedical science since its conception, three decades ago.
Now, I’m certainly no scientist - let’s be clear on that - but allow me to explain the science behind this striking development as I understand it: The intelligent bunch of experts at Scripps have taken samples of the frozen skin cells and somehow turned them into a culture of cells known as ‘induced pluripotent stem’ (IPS) cells.
According to WordNet, a lexical database of English, developed by Princeton University, a stem-cell is: ‘An undifferentiated cell whose daughter cells may differentiate into other cells.’ In other words, it is a cell that has no particular function on its own but can become any other cell.
So, these IPS cells theoretically have the ability to become egg and sperm cells. These, as we all know, can be fused to form an embryo and Hey Presto! Bam! Life!
Keep the embryo in conditions suitable for growth and a baby rhinoceros, or a cheetah cub, or a silver-maned drill monkey, as the case may be, could be on its way to help beef up diminishing populations.
The current revolution that is getting the scientific community so excited has been the creation of IPS cells for this silver-maned drill monkey. It is the most endangered of all Africa’s monkeys and earlier this year, stem cells from this primate morphed into brain cells, giving the whole theory a big basis for belief.
The implications of all this are far reaching and have understandably made conservationists delighted. With the ever-onward march of science, moving determined through uncharted territory, it may well only be a matter of time, possibly not many years, before species on the edge of extinction (of which more than 350 mammals alone are indigenous to Africa) are given new life. Threatened animals, such as the common hippopotamus, the rhino and our closest genetic relative - the chimpanzee – face the possibility of having their gene-pools enhanced by scientific meddling.
There are some animals, such as the northern white rhino, originally a free roamer in sub-Saharan countries like Tanzania, which currently number less than ten in the world. Due to poaching, this rhino is now extinct in the wild. There are only eight kept in captivity – the sad remains of a species that could once stand alone in the open savannah and graze without fear.
The stem-cell technology that is being pioneered in Scripps’ research facility is laying the foundations for hope, that one day our ancestors may be able to view these unarguably magnificent creatures in their own natural environment. We can only hope. Good luck to the scientists! And good work!