Nature: Test-tube panda offers hope for a dying species

Chinese scientists have taken the first step towards creating a

test-tube giant panda.

As one of the world's rarest animals heads towards extinction in the wild, Teresa Poole finds that the breakthough may have come too late.

On 4 August, Chinese scientists at the Laboratory of Genetic and Embryo Engineering on Endangered Wildlife received a call telling them a 17-year-old female giant panda had died from disease.

The loss of a captive giant panda is an event almost enough to send China into national mourning, but in this case her death brought the potential for a scientific breakthrough. Since the beginning of this year, the laboratory had been equipped to attempt the world's first test-tube panda fertilisation. The only ingredients missing were female panda eggs.

The team led by one of China's foremost panda experts, Zhang Anju, removed the dead panda's ovaries as quickly as possible. "The egg we took out from the dead panda was immature, so we cultured it first in the laboratory," said Mr Zhang. The egg was then fertilised with sperm from the panda semen bank in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in China's south-west. "We cultured it for more than 10 hours and it began to divide, growing into the shape of a dumb-bell. This really is the first successful in vitro fertilisation of the panda both in China and abroad," he said.

Sichuan is the world centre for panda research, and over the past week it has hosted an international gathering of panda experts, panda lovers, and panda pundits. The Chengdu meeting takes place every four years and the academic symposium, attended this year by 200 experts from China and overseas, is a chance for an update on new research. Much of the focus this year was on advances in breeding technique for an animal which is notoriously sex-shy.

As Mr Zhang explained this week, faulty equipment - or bad luck - resulted in the carbon dioxide concentration in the incubator rising too high. This killed the fertilised egg. "If this had not happened, the cell could have grown into an embryo and been transplanted into a female panda," said Mr Zhang, who has spent 30 years conducting panda research.

The laboratory, which he heads, now plans to do further experiments on other large, rare animals, such as the black bear, "which are more easily available than the giant panda ... after these experiments are successful, we will take eggs from living pandas who have lost the ability to bear cubs", he said. The test-tube panda may yet become a reality.

While reproductive short-comings are a challenge, the main threat to the survival of the panda is mankind's destruction of its natural habitat. Since 1949, one-third of the forest cover in Sichuan, where most pandas live, has been felled. there are now only an estimated 1,000 pandas left in the wild. The panda communities which have survived are often cut off from each other, so that in-breeding is a major threat to genetic diversity.

Mr Zhang and his colleagues want to see much more effort put into protecting the pandas' habitat, so that any artificially bred pandas have somewhere to go and live. And over the next few years, China plans to build "green passageways", linking areas set aside for the panda so that the occasionally randy pandas have a better chance to meet.

Pandas are fussy eaters and the death of large tracts of bamboo, their staple, is another serious threat. From 1983 to 1996 as many as 183 pandas suffering from illness or malnutrition were found in the wild. Panda poaching also remains a threat, despite the death penalty for anyone caught peddling a panda skin.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home