Lion embryos created by in vitro fertilisation for the first time

African lion embryos have been created by a German research group using immature egg cells and cryopreserved sperm for the first time. The effort represents a boost to conservation groups trying to breed lions in captivity while avoiding genetic inbreeding.

Lion in the sun.

An African lion under the sun. With numbers decreasing in the wild, hope for better captive breeding is just around the corner. Photo credit: Steve Garvie, CC2.0.

The research team, from Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), extracted immature egg cells, called oocytes, from African lionesses. These were artificially matured and injected with sperm from lions that had been frozen in a cryobank. This led to the generation of viable embryos.

Until now, this procedure was only ever performed for domestic cats and the team soon noticed that lion embryos develop significantly slower than cat embryos.  Lorena Fernandez-Gonzalez, a researcher at IZW who worked on the project, said in a press release, “The in vitro produced embryos of the African lions proved that the methods developed for domestic cats can also be applied to lions, even though the variations developmental speed of the embryos indicate some fascinating differences between these species.”

Soon-to-be lion

Egg being fertilised by intracytoplasmic sperm injection at IZW. Photo credit: Jennifer Zahmel/IZW.

This discovery may lead to safer, more practical, and cheaper conservation methods. Under current breeding programmes, entire animals have to be transported to foreign zoos in order to gain the genetic diversity needed to prevent inbreeding. These journeys can often be uncomfortable for the animals and runs the risk of spreading disease between zoos. Dr Jennifer Zahmel from IZW said that methods like theirs “can help to solve various problems in captive breeding programmes.”

World lion populations have suffered from human interference – including habitat destruction and hunting – in recent decades and are in significant decline. The African lion has suffered an estimated 80-90% population drop in its natural habitat since 1975.

Artificial reproduction methods such as these are not the ideal situation in terms of conservation. In the short term, they may help preserve genetic diversity in captive breeding programmes which in turn will help the lion population recover if and when they are returned to the wild.

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Dr David Kirk
Dr David Kirk is a science communicator and researcher with biotech start-up CHAIN Biotechnology Ltd in Nottingham, UK. He works on the microbial engineering of Clostridia for high-value chiral chemical synthesis. He completed his PhD in 2015 on bacterial spore formation at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He plays badminton (poorly) and maintains a blog on science news and synthetic biology: His views are his own. Twitter: @DrDaveKirk Blog: Research:

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