Nature, Science

Test-Tube Puppies May Help Save Endangered Canines

In vitro fertilization was used for the first time to produce these beagle and beagle-cocker spaniel mix puppies.
In vitro fertilization was used for the first time to produce these beagle and beagle-cocker spaniel mix puppies. Photo: Jeffery MacMillan | Simthsonian/Cornell.

Partnered with Cornell University, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers have successfully bred the world’s first test tube puppies. They finally cracked the 30-year mystery of how to get in vitro fertilization (IVF) to work for canines. That’s a huge step forward for the conservation of endangered species like the Ethiopian Wolf, Darwin’s fox, or the Mexican grey wolf.

Lots of wild canines are endangered, but getting them to breed in captivity to shore up the numbers can be hard to do. It’s even worse if a wolf is incapable of carrying a litter to term or if she dies before being able to do so, thus reducing her genes from the pool. As these canine populations shrink, they lose genetic diversity, which makes them more susceptible to disease and genetic disorders.

Figuring out how to use IVF for canines was also difficult, because they have a much more complicated reproductive system than humans, or a lot of other mammals for that matter. This made the process a lot harder than it was expected to be, and a lot of it came down to figuring out the right timing for when to harvest eggs or to introduce them to sperm or to implant them in surrogate mothers.

The test tube puppies in question are five beagles and two beagle-cocker spaniel mixes that have all been adopted by scientists from the team. The puppies are happy and healthy, and they represent an important step in the process. More testing will be required, and a lot of different variables will likely be involved for applying the IVF process to other canines, but things are looking up for wild canine populations. And, with a deeper understanding of canine reproduction and how IVF works in those populations, we have a good starting point for investigating IVF as a viable procedure to shore up the numbers of other endangered species as well.

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