An early career researcher at the University of Newcastle has been awarded almost $380,000 to investigate stem cells in Australian species to improve conservation efforts of those that are endangered.

The research is the first of its kind and will look at how reproductive stem cells can be used as a conservation tool for endangered wildlife species through biobanking.

Biobanking is the cryopreservation or freezing of reproductive cells which is usually mature sperm or egg cells. This is done to preserve the different genetic information of animals to make sure the gene pool of the species doesn’t become too small. When there is only a small population of animals, for instance when they are endangered, they start to become genetically similar which makes them more vulnerable to extinction.

The problem currently with biobanking is in some species the mature sperm cells that are cryopreserved don’t survive the freezing process, which means they can’t be used to create new individuals in the future and maintain the genetic diversity.

Lecturer in Biological Science, Dr Tessa Lord says one of the species that has this problem is the Koala and its really important to do some work on maintaining the population. 

“My research specifically is looking at the potential for biobanking the spermatogonial stem cells rather than sperm from species like the koala.

“This is something which hasn’t really been done before and that’s because we don’t know a lot about these reproductive stem cells, particularly in wildlife species. We don’t really know how to keep them alive in an invitro environment, in other words outside the body.

“My previous research has identified a molecular pathway that we think is important for the survival and maintenance of these reproductive stem cells and we have found the koala stem cells also seem to possess this pathway,” Dr Lord said.

The funding for the project comes from the Australian Research Council which Dr Lord hopes to further characterise the molecular pathway.

Based on the results, the team wants to make the first attempts at maintaining the koala stem cells in a culture dish which would be the first pre-cursor step towards the biobanking approaches.

Dr Lord says we urgently need an intervention to make sure our koala population is not facing extinction and the biobanking of the reproductive tissue like the spermatogonial stem cells is one tool that can be used towards doing this.