A Japanese university and zoo are creating a sperm bank for endangered animals that could one day be used to bring extinct species back to life and even help to colonise other planets with Earth’s rarest creatures.
To date, scientists at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Medicine and the city’s zoo have managed to freeze dry the sperm of chimpanzees and a Sunda slow loris, both of which are listed as primates at risk, as well as giraffes.
Takehito Kaneko, an associate professor at the university, spent a decade perfecting a method of incorporating a buffer solution in the freeze-drying process to preserve the sperm at the same time as protecting the genetic information within the sample.
The scientists were able to bring the sperm back to life by thawing it gently in water.
This method preserves the sperm samples very well and technically we believe it is possible to store them for decades or even longer into the future,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“After they have been preserved, we want to continually examine the condition of the genetic information.”
Prof. Kaneko began his research in mice and rats and was successful in breeding young of both species through artificial insemination from sperm that had been freeze-dried for five years.
He has now set his sights on collecting sperm samples from a range of larger animals that are also at risk of extinction, starting with elephants, tigers and rhinoceros. The zoo is home to 132 species of animals and the university team aims to collect samples from each species in the future.
Freeze-drying of sperm has advantages over using liquid nitrogen as it does not require large amounts of bulky equipment and samples can be stored in a regular refrigerator.
Prof. Kakeko emphasised that he is not a medical doctor and is not sure if there are human applications for the technology, but added that it might be something that doctors consider.
“It’s a long way in the future, of course, but if we can store this genetic information in this way it could be something that we can take into space,” he said, adding that the samples could be used to create colonies of creatures on other planets.