Horse breeding tech comes to rescue of endangered animals

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Stallion AI owner Tullis Matson has founded Nature's SAFE and will use equine reproduction methods to cryopreserve biosamples from endangered animal species for storage.
Stallion AI owner Tullis Matson has founded Nature’s SAFE and will use equine reproduction methods to cryopreserve biosamples from endangered animal species for storage. © Nature’s SAFE

Cutting-edge equine reproduction technology has led to the foundation of a ground-breaking charity for endangered species preservation.

Nature’s SAFE, Europe’s first Living Biobank dedicated to preserving endangered animals, has been launched with the mission to save animals from extinction, by harnessing regeneration and reproductive technologies developed via domestic animal breeding.

The biobank will process and store live skin and reproductive cells and tissues from endangered species that would otherwise be lost forever, that can be used to facilitate animal regeneration and species restoration.

It aims to cryopreserve reproductive cells and cell lines from at least 50 different animals from each species at risk of extinction to ensure species survival into the future. Among them is the Central Asian subspecies of the Asiatic wild ass, the Onager (Equus hemionus), which is formally listed as endangered. In Kazakhstan, the species became extinct in the 1930s, but reintroduction initiatives had already started in the early 1950s.

Nature’s SAFE has been founded by Tullis Matson, owner and managing director of Stallion AI Services, a UK based equine reproduction centre. With the state of nature’s continual decline, he realised that techniques developed for the equine industry could be adapted for use in conservation by storing live cells from endangered animal species.

“We are in the 6th mass extinction; the largest predicted loss of living biodiversity in 65 million years. More than one million of the World’s species are threatened with extinction; largely as a result of the actions of humanity,” said Matson, who is the chairman of Nature’s SAFE.

Nature’s SAFE is working in collaboration with Chester Zoo and The Rhino Fertility Project at the University of Oxford and is supported by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Biobank.

A laboratory technician works on a sample from an endangered animal for the new biobank.
A laboratory technician works on a sample from an endangered animal for the new biobank. © Nature’s SAFE

The charity uses a specialised cryopreservation media to indefinitely store live skin cells from threatened species. After processing, the skin cells are frozen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius, at which point they are preserved in a dormant state and can be kept indefinitely. When thawed, the cells retain their ability to ‘wake up’ and regenerate, so enabling their use in artificial breeding programmes. Nature’s SAFE will also store ovarian and testicular tissue from endangered animals. Additional plans include the development of techniques to generate sperm and egg cells from reproductive tissue.

“To be able to use 30 years of experience in equine reproduction and equine rare breed preservation for an even greater good is a real privilege,” Matson said.

“It is an honour to be working with some of the world’s most endangered species and knowing that we are saving such important animals is indescribable.”

Matson said many years of hard work and planning had gone into the formation of the charity. “We are very thankful to everyone who has helped us get to this point, but this is just the beginning and we know the real hard work is yet to come. Nature’s SAFE is just one small part of the larger puzzle to prevent biodiversity loss, but we truly believe we can make a huge difference to worldwide efforts to fight extinction.”

Working with their partners within the national zoo association, Nature’s SAFE has already successfully stored live cells from a number of endangered species including the Black Rhino, Asian Elephant, Eastern Bongo and Javan Green Magpie, with promising post-thaw results.

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