April 23, 2013

Breakthrough in Canine Conservation

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While puppies are not an uncommon sight, there’s something special about a Beagle-Labrador Retriever mix named Klondike: he is the result of the combined effort of the Cornell Center for Wildlife Conservation and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

What makes Klondike so special? When he was only eight to sixteen cells big, Klondike was taken from his biological mother, flash-frozen for a period of time, and transplanted into a surrogate mother when she was able to carry the pregnancy.

Klondike is the first successful result of this procedure in the western hemisphere, showing exactly how difficult and poorly understood the canine reproductive system is.

“We really know very little about their reproduction,” said Prof. Alexander  Travis, reproductive biology. “It’s an area where there’s still so much to be done.”

Travis is interested in being able to freeze embryos as part of conservation efforts in many endangered species of wild dogs. The key to maintaining a species is preserving its genetic diversity, which can be difficult when animals are in captivity.

Canine species in particular have a set social order within their groups, and moving an animal from one zoo to another for breeding can cause stress that will prevent successful breeding and pregnancy, according to Travis.

Having embryos frozen doesn’t require transporting grown animals, allows for the preservation of the genetic material of deceased animals and also allows the embryo to be implanted as soon as a surrogate mother goes into heat.

According to Travis, researchers are currently unaware of what triggers ovulation in a dog, but with frozen embryos ready to go at any time, conservationists can impregnate a dog as soon as she’s biologically ready.

“The same technologies could be used in veterinary care of pet dogs,” Travis said. It would allow dog breeders to get as many puppies as possible from their best dogs, he said.

The next step in the process of understanding and being able to manipulate canine reproduction would be successful in-vitro fertilization, which, according to Travis “has never been done in a dog.”

In order to accomplish that, however, there are still many puzzles to be solved on both the sperm and the egg side of reproduction. The differences between dog reproduction and that of other mammals are still being identified and worked out.

Jennifer Nagashima ’09, the grad student who worked on the project to create Klondike, is one of the first students of the new Cornell-Smithsonian Joint Graduate Training Program. She divides her time between a project in Washington D.C. and a project at Cornell, both of which relate to canine reproductive biology.

“It’s nice to have a partnership between an academic institution and a great conservation organization because they each bring different things to the table,” Travis said.

Currently, there are only two graduate students enrolled in the program, Travis said, but they are looking to get the word out to anyone interested in doing graduate work in conservation biology.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter