Stem cells could save snow leopards

Their high-altitude habitat and shy nature makes it difficult to estimate how many snow leopards remain in the wild. Image: Shutterstock.

Scientists have produced stem cells from the tissue of an adult snow leopard.

Snow leopards live between 3000 and 5500 metres above sea level in the mountains of Central Asia. It is estimated that between 3500 and 7000 exist in the wild, but their numbers are declining.

Monash University scientists have succeeded in generating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from snow leopard tissue samples. This is first step towards creating reproductive cells from these cats, which will assist in their conservation.

The study, published in Theriogenology, forms part of the PhD project of Rajneesh Verma. He said he chose to focus on snow leopards as he has been fascinated by wild cats since childhood.

“Their numbers are declining and most of all it is very hard to estimate the exact number as they are found in central Asia, which is mostly in the snowy mountains.”

The researchers used ear tissue samples that had been taken from adult snow leopards at Mogo Zoo, NSW, to generate the iPS cells. This is a significant breakthrough, according to Verma’s supervisor Paul Verma, as obtaining reproductive cells or gametes is difficult, even with animals in captivity.

The scientists only had access to ear tissue samples for this study. However, the ear cell tissues turned out to be the best cell types to produce iPS cells, according to Verma.

“This makes it more advantageous to use only ear punch from these cats rather looking for any other cell type,” he said.

There is currently significant interest in the cryopreservation of tissue from endangered species, but egg and sperm cells are required for conservation. Stem cells, however, can differentiate into all cell types and have the potential to become gametes (egg or sperm cells).

The iPS cells share many of the properties of embryonic stem cells and would be a good source of donor cells for cloning. The next step is to use these cells to create offspring- this has already been demonstrated with mouse iPS cells.

This method of creating stem cells was recently used for the endangered drill monkey and the white Rhino. Verma said he believes this method could be applied to other cat species and is now directing his attention to the bengal tiger, the jaguar and the serval.

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