Research has found the fertility of previously sterile mammals can be restored as they can produce sperm derived from donor stem cells.

According to the Roslin Institute, male pigs, goats and mice can produce sperm containing only genetic material from donor species.

Animals that were made sterile through gene-editing techniques became fertile again after receiving stem cells from donor animals that were genetically different from them, the Roslin Institute said in a release.

“Our study provides a powerful proof of concept. This shows the world that this technology is real and can be used. Our findings could be used as a way to widely spread desirable genetic traits in livestock for generating milk, meat or fiber for human consumption. We now have to go in and work out how best to use it productively to help feed our growing population,” Bruce Whitelaw, professor and Genus Personal Chair of Animal Biotechnology at the Roslin Institute said in the release.

Researchers believe this novel surrogacy approach could speed the spread of desirable characteristics in livestock and improve food production for a growing global population. It may also help livestock breeders in remote regions better access genetic material of elite animals from other parts of the world while allowing for more precision breeding in animals such as goats where using artificial insemination is difficult.

“Genetic improvement of livestock, implemented through application of advanced breeding technologies such as artificial insemination, has been hugely successful in advanced economies. In our study we used gene editing technology to develop male surrogates that do not produce their own sperm, but can act as incubators for the sperm of other males,” Simon Lillico, Research Fellow at the Roslin Institute, explained in the release.

This development could be useful for the genetic improvement of livestock in low- and middle-income countries, such as those with whom the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health works, where small-holder livestock holdings are crucial for food security, nutrition and income generation, Lillico said in the release.

One of the key aspects for this technique to work is that surrogates must lack their own sperm, but are otherwise physiologically normal. Animal embryos in the study were first sterilized by using the gene-editing technique CRISPR to disable a gene essential for male fertility.

After being born sterile, animals received stem cells from male donors into their testes. The animals were then able to produce sperm holding only genetic material from the donors through the novel surrogacy technique, the Roslin Institute reports. The sperm produced by these animals was normal and healthy.

The Roslin Institute says this could be helpful biomedical research and preservation of endangered species. The study also shows that for the first time, it’s possible to sterilize cattle by using genome editing.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, was a collaboration between the Roslin Institute, Washington State University, University of Maryland and Utah State University. It was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, WSU’s Functional Genomics Initiative and Genus plc.

The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the U.K. Research and Innovation’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. At Utah State University, this study was supported by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station.

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