A Dream Of Lalji Singh, The Father Of DNA Fingerprinting In India, LaCONES Grows Animals By Artificial Insemination
Spotty, the spotted deer fawn, and Blacky, a blackbuck calf, are ordinary deer and not.
They were born not in woodland, but in a lab by artificial insemination. Spotty and Blacky are the results of an Indian laboratory’s effort to grow endangered animals through assistive reproduction in a remote facility on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
The Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (La- CONES) and its scientists have raised the Kashmir Hangul Deer, Nicobar Blue-Rock Pigeons, Mouse- Deer and the Chhattisgarh Buffalo.
A dream of the father of DNA fingerprinting in India, scientist Lalji Singh, the lab is part of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Centre For Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CMB). It has been fighting extinction since 2007.
The importance of their work can be gauged from the fact that 14% of all species in India face extinction. Conservation breeding and assisted reproductive strategies are one of the best ways to keep them from disappearing from the face of the earth.
Despite having just seven scientists currently, LaCONES has made decisive strides in conserving endangered species. It is the only laboratory in India to develop methods for collecting and cryo-preserving semen and oocytes from wildlife. It uses modern biotechnology methods to reproduce endangered species.
LaCONES has a frozen zoo. This is a genetic resource bank of Indian wildlife and is a crucial part of the species recovery project. Scientists have preserved the genetic material of 23 wild animals, including tigers, lions, wild dogs and leopards.
Dr Karthikeyan Vasudevan, the chief scientist at LaCONES, says: “We cryopreserve the oocytes and sperm cells collected from the dead and take up in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer.”
The Nehru Zoological Park at Hyderabad and other partners of the consortium of zoos in the country inform LaCONES whenever an animal dies. A scientist from the lab goes to the zoo and collects sperm and eggs. The frozen zoo can store 12,000 vials.
LaCONES, in collaboration with Nehru Zoological park, Hyderabad, has now rescued Indian Mouse Deer from extinction through a successful conservation breeding programme. Also known as Indian Chevrotain, it is the smallest deer found in India. Initially, eight mouse deer were released in July 2018. When they survived, 116 more were released into the wild. The scientists say they have seen a slight increase in their numbers since then.
Another significant contribution of LaCONES is the development of early-pregnancy detection kits for cattle that can be used by dairy farmers across the country. The technique, developed by G Umapathy who is the senior principal scientist, has been patented. Karthikeyan Vasudevan says: “This device has a huge market in Africa. It can be useful for the rest of the world.”
Scientists have adopted the methodology used for pregnancy detection in tigers and lions. The paper-based affordable microfluidic kit, developed by LaCONES, tests urine and dung samples of cattle. With this non-invasive kit, any farmer or farm worker can do the test. Umapathy says: “Farmers can save two months with early detection and this would boost milk production.”
Hangul Deer, the pride of Kashmir, is restricted to the Dachigam National Park and lives in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. In the 2017 census, its numbers had dwindled to 182. La- CONES is now helping save the species. Also known as the Kashmir Stag, it was once found across the Himalayas. In the 1990s, about 5,000 had been spotted but the numbers are falling.
The lab rose to challenges faced during the Covid-19 pandemic as well. In August 2020, it started testing wild animal samples for possible SARS-CoV-2 infection. Karthikeyan Vasudevan said: “We have developed a technique and worked on testing wild animals like the Asiatic lions for SARS-CoV-2 and detected the virus in them.”
LaCONES also helps foresters and police detect wildlife crimes. Senior principal scientist Ajay Gaur leads the lab that extracts DNA from seized wildlife material like cooked and dried meat, claws, shark fins, eggshells, animal hair, bones, ivory, horns, turtle shells, feathers and fish scales to convict poachers. Vasudevan says: “More than 3,000 wildlife crime cases have been cracked with the help of LaCONES.”
Using DNA-based techniques, LaCONES provides the diagnosis of wildlife diseases. Umapathy and his team also researched 36 captive-bred pygmy hogs across eight generations and revealed no signs of genetic inbreeding. Recently, LaCONES has started working on wild plant species as well.
IN LaCONES’ KITTY
The Hyderabad laboratory has built a frozen zoo, which is a genetic resource bank of Indian wildlife and a crucial part of the species recovery project. The lab has also tested animals, like Asiatic Lions, for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has caused the global Covid-19 pandemic. LaCONES has also started work on wild plant species to.
• Scientists at CCMB LaCONES have developed a DNA-based marker to identify wild animals from their dismembered parts
• Its molecular marker studies have helped the forest department rehabilitate smuggled star tortoises to their native forests The facility has a non-invasive technique to figure out the fertility and pregnancy status of big cats, cattle and ungulates
• The lab has developed DNA-based methods for the detection of parasitic, bacterial and viral diseases in endangered animals in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries
• It has made species-specific microsatellite markers for lions, tigers and leopards to measure heterozygosity to advise zoos on in-breeding
• In its frozen zoo, LaCONES has a genetic resource bank of Indian wildlife which is a crucial part of the species recovery project.
• LaCONES has a DNA bank of around 250 species of mammals, birds and reptiles in the country
• It has cryopreserved genetic material from endangered species for their effective revival and produced a spotted deer fawn and a blackbuck calf using artificial insemination
• The lab has developed protocols for cryopreservation of sperms and oocytes from dead animals and the generation of embryos by in-vitro fertilisation
• LaCONES does population estimation, identification of sexes and documentation of tigers using DNA