Feb 032012
English: Three two-month-old snow leopard (Unc...

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It is the first time the technique has proved successful in the cat family

AUSTRALIAN scientists have produced embryonic stem-like cells from the tissue of an adult snow leopard for the first time, marking a breakthrough in the battle to save the endangered species.

The cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells, are ideal because they are able to become any cell in the body – including reproductive cells or gametes.

Researchers from Monash Institute of Medical Research, Queensland and Monash Universities, achieved the milestone by taking ear tissue samples from a snow leopard at New South Wales’ Mogo Zoo.

The adult ear cells were then manipulated to behave like embryonic stem cells which have the potential to ultimately become, scientists hope, ”test tube cubs”.

Rajneesh Verma, from the Monash Institute of Medical Research, said the results opened the door for high-tech conservation methods – not just for the snow leopard but for other endangered species.

”At the moment it’s only IVF and captive breeding that is available to save the species,” Mr Verma said. ”These methods are invasive and have problems such as still births, in-breeding and low mating rates.”

Mr Verma said the technique would also eliminate the invasive procedures currently used to gain reproductive material from the endangered species, which includes darting the animals.

”We are saying we don’t need an egg or a sperm to get an embryo. All we need is an ear cell and we can make the same stem cell that would be created by a fertilised egg,” he said.

The cells are also easily transportable and can be stored indefinitely, meaning the gene pool deepens as genetic material can come from any population in the world.

Native to the mountain ranges of south and central Asia, it is estimated that no more than 7000 snow leopards continue to survive in the wild.

The cat is listed as endangered on the international Red List of Threatened Species.

It is the first time the technique has proved successful in the cat family.

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