Mice Used as Sperm Factories for Pigs, Goats

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"Zoo animals frequently have difficulty reaching maturity," said Dobrinski. "A lot of cat species are endangered. If you have ten male animals, but only five reach adulthood, you have a very small gene pool. This technique would allow us to produce sperm from all ten animals, thereby increasing the genetic variation within a population."

Sperm Factories Ethics

Producing sperm isn't the same as cloning, but reproductive research is a field strewn with ethical land mines.

"Now we know how to do this, but we don't know all the ramifications and consequences of doing it," said Bill Lynn, an animal and global ethicist at The Hastings Center, a research institute focused on ethical questions based in New York. "Infertility really tears at peoples hearts, but we need to proceed with caution and not rush into application."

The technique raises questions of whether diseases or genetic defects will jump from species to species. AIDS and ebola are two deadly examples of diseases that originated in primates and have been passed into the human population.

Zoonotic disease creates a disease effect for the child; a genetic, hereditable defect could be passed on and duplicated in the overall population, said Lynn.

"This question is particularly important among animal populations because of the potential ecological effects," he said. "If a disease or genetic defect arises in human beings, we'll be pretty quick to develop a treatment and get rid of it. But if it arises in animals and they breed in the wild, zoonotic and genetic diseases could take hold and wreak havoc on a population."

Choosing to generate sperm based on particular traits also raises the specter of eugenics—selective breeding to create a perfect race. "The Nazis killed offspring they considered defective based on a policy called "life not worth living," said Lynn. "In a way, screening sperm can be seen as a clean way to manipulate our genetic heritage."

If used in largescale livestock production, the potential lack of genetic variation could increase susceptibility to genetic and infectious diseases and ultimately put food security at risk, said Lynn.

"There are a lot of potential caveats and questions to be answered—if we do get sperm, what do we do with them—and safety concerns: Do we get normal offspring, what is the potential for cross-species disease transference. But from a practical point of view, the technique is not technically difficult, and the benefits are great," said Dobrinski.

"But any talk about using the technique in humans is highly speculative. Scientists hate to talk about something they haven't done, and there's been no work done on primates."

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