Scientists build 'frozen zoo' to save endangered species

Story highlights

  • Genetic storage center being built to save endangered animals
  • Animal skin cells are being turned into stem cells

(CNN)It's a small lab, full of huge ideas.

The University of Georgia's Regenerative Bioscience Center is building what's being called a "frozen zoo," a genetic storage center that their scientists believe will someday save endangered big cats (and eventually other species) from extinction.
    This ambitious vision comes from RBC Director Steven Stice and animal and dairy science assistant professor Franklin West.
    Here's how the pair say it will work:
    Cells from the skin of a sedated animal are extracted in a noninvasive procedure. Researchers convert those cells into stem cells by introducing a series of specialized reprogramming genes. And from there, those stem cells can be made into sperm or eggs.
    The RBC said sperm has already been created from pig stem cells. Stice and West are positive that big cats, which were chosen because scientists have a firm grasp on their biological makeup, won't be far behind.
    "I'm very certain that it's going to work," West told CNN.
    Working in conjunction with Zoo Atlanta, the team has already performed the extraction on "Jalal," a Sumatran tiger that was euthanized at the zoo in 2010 and a clouded leopard called "Moby" that died in 2013.
    The Florida panther is another animal West and his team hope to be able to breed in the future.
    "Every year one of these animals gets hit by a car -- and they're at a point where they're breeding brothers and sisters together because the gene pool has shrunk," West said.
    The cells are kept in tanks of liquid nitrogen, waiting to be reprogrammed into stem cells.
    "Essentially the genetics are immortal," West said. "You could go in 20, 30, 200 years theoretically, you could thaw these stem cells out, and turn them into sperm and eggs."
    And it won't take much space either, he said as he pulls out a small container. "It would take two boxes to essentially store a whole population."
    The RBC said it will make sperm from stem cells, a process that will replace current endangered species breeding techniques, which researchers say are focused primarily in the confines of a zoo.
    The team is taking the path less traveled to make the frozen zoo a reality. Instead of reaching out for research grants, they're setting up a crowdfunding page to get donations. That idea came courtesy of Charlene Betourney, the center's marketing and development coordinator, who has a background in hospital fundraising.
    In her office she has a large poster of Jalal meant to grab the attention of potential donors.
    "With the GeorgiaFunder, I saw a great opportunity for us to tap into monetary resources left by the gaps of industry and government funding," Betourney said.
    "This type of 'interactive funding' also allows our research teams a greater level of transparency and engagement with the general public." It also encourages what Betourney called "real-time" science: "finding the underlying cause of a problem and bringing resources quickly together to solve it."
    That engagement includes updates via social media outlets such as Facebook and Instagram.
    However he gets the funding, the mission is an urgent one for West, a self-described animal fanatic.
    "I've always loved nature, I enjoy taking my daughter to the zoo all the time," he said.
    "I think the natural environment is one of those things that make life worth living."