First Bovine Embryonic Stem Cells Could Improve Livestock Genetics
Although the first embryonic stem cells were developed from mice in 1981, and human embryonic stem cells were cultured in 1998, bovine embryonic stem cells have proved elusive until now, as reported in Science Mag.
What makes an embryonic stem cell so useful in research?
Key to successful embryonic stem cells is their pluripotency — the ability of the cells to differentiate into other cell types. In the case of pluripotent embryonic stem cells, they have no fixed developmental potential and the new bovine embryonic stem cells could make it easier to improve animal genetics.
Bovine stem cells have proved tricky to create, as stem cells cultured from cow embryos would quickly lose their pluripotency and develop into specific cell types when grown in a lab.
The beauty of embryonic stem cells is that they could become a wide variety of tissues, which (in the case of bovine embryonic stem cells) could make it easier to modify and/or preserve useful genetic traits of the various breeds of cattle. This could lead to animals that could theoretically produce more milk or higher-quality meat, have an easier time giving birth, or better resist common diseases. The possibilities are endless, really.
How'd they do that?
The research team used a unique culture medium that combined two key ingredients: a protein to boost cell growth and propagation, and a different molecule that inhibits cell development (so that the embryonic stem cells would be unable to differentiate into more mature cell types).
This combination both sped up and hampered cell development, resulting in stem cells that remained pluripotent in a laboratory setting over a long period of time.
How can this technology be used?
These cells could hypothetically make it possible for breeders to select more genetically-advantaged animals by testing embryonic stem cells from different embryos for desired genetic traits (and then even potentially creating clones from those cells).
Researchers are also looking at ways to develop these bovine embryonic stem cells into bovine sperm and egg cells, which would open up a method for creating embryos with new genetic combinations, isolating even more stem cells from the best ones. This sequence (stem cell, sperm/egg, embryo, stem cell) could then allow for livestock genetics companies to rapidly cycle through generations without needing to birth any animals, potentially fast-tracking genetic progress in an exponential way.
Access to a new species of embryonic stem cells could also open new research opportunities. For example, this may make it possible for creating large-animal models that could mimic human disease more closely than mice are able to.
Embryonic stem cells are still proving difficult to produce from most species — the new culture medium is showing early promise with sheep cells, and researchers are looking to test this with additional species in the near future.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. "First cow embryonic stem cells could lead to healthier, more productive livestock." Science Magazine Vol 359, Issue 6375. doi:10.1126/science.aat2197
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