A Chat with the Program Director of SVF

As I was pondering how to write my recent post about food animal biobanking, my fantastic friends Araina and Kate urged me to call SVF Foundation1. And in 15 minutes I learned a lot.

The “SVF” in SVF Foundation stands for Swiss Village Farm, and the foundation is specifically rooted in farming. That root, it turns out, is the quick explanation for the difference in SVF’s biodiversity focus and a zoo’s biodiversity focus (and thus my feelings of disappointment I mention in the previous post, as I am rooted in the zoo side of things).

SVF Foundation was founded about 13 years ago as a non-profit tasked with conserving the biodiversity of agriculturally important ruminates–so, cows, sheep, and goats. They are almost exclusively privately funded, though they do have some fun merch for sale. I think I have some friends who might want the tote bag, for example.

A white calf with brown spots in Kenya, around Tsavo National Parks. Very dry, scrubby vegetation, and red soil.

On the surface, this appears very similar, albeit smaller in scope, to the focus of zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Such institutions actively engage in biodiversity preservation as well.

The foundation is tasked with being able to bring back breeds of such species within a generation of complete loss. This means being able to move quickly, focus on precisely that goal, and, in particular, being able to work with the standards set by agricultural industries (meat production, dairy production, etc).

Zoos are tasked with indefinitely maintaining maximal genetic diversity within a number of threatened or endangered species, possibly while working with extremely small numbers of individuals.

The biodiversity mandates of SVF and AZA zoos are very similar in many ways. But, as I’ve emphasized above, temporally they are incredibly different. It is that difference, not the similarity, that drives focus.

Sarah Bowley, Program Director of SVF explained that the dairy industry leads the way for agriculture in researching and using in vitro fertilization (IVF), as well as in embryo and semen cryopreservation.

The dairy industry does not prioritize figuring out the cryopreservation of female gametes2 (also known as “oocytes,” “eggs,” or “seeds” depending on a variety of factors; I’ll use “oocytes”). They do, however, prioritize oocyte collection. Otherwise they would not be able to make the embryos they will eventually cryopreserve. Thus, they lead the way in oocyte collection techniques, which requires intense focus on genetic interests of both cows (females) and bulls (males).

A dairy cow half-nuzzling/half-shoving a man in the hopes of getting more scratching. Her head is tucked under his arm and behind his back.

I cannot blame those in the dairy industry, frankly, for not prioritizing oocyte cryopreservation. It is difficult, and if it’s not necessary, what is the point of investing in it?

Let me break it down a little bit.

Most people who have some awareness of any of the topics I’ve mentioned so far have gained that awareness through hearing or reading about human infertility treatments. If you’ve heard about these treatments, you likely have a basic idea of what IVF is, and that it can lead to embryos that can be frozen. You’ve probably also heard of sperm banks, and so know that semen can also be frozen. You may have even noticed that you’ve never heard of oocyte or egg banks, and maybe you wondered why.

The basic reason is because oocytes are huge and they are delicate. It’s a terrible combination for trying to freeze something. Their size and delicacy has makes them hard to protect in freezing and hard to use after freezing. And that is just the oocyte itself. There’s actually a bunch of smaller cells surrounding and connected to the oocyte which are vital to its ability to merge with sperm, and they also hamper freezing efforts.

Denuded and intact oocytes in co-culture after in vitro maturation. I don't recall the magnification & my notes don't say.

It’s a tricky problem and, as I said in my last post on the topic, I don’t really know where the cutting edge is, but I can see why oocyte cryopreservation is not part of dairy or other agricultural industry standard practices. It comes down to the need for flexibility.

The need for immediate genetic results drives the dairy industry. That industry, in turn, leads the way for how all of this is implemented in agriculture. SVF’s task is to be able to work with those in agriculture to revive a currently endangered food or fiber breed within one generation of it going extinct. Thus, they’re going to work with the tools agricultural industries uses: embryos and semen.

A feline “hatching” blastocyst (embryo) at 22x magnification. Floresent blue dye lights up the cells for counting. “Hatching” is the term for when the blastocyst becomes large enough to possibly implant and exits the zona pellucida that was surrounding the fertilized oocyte.

A zoo works with a much wider variety of species and potentially smaller numbers of individuals (but not necessarily, see this PDF from SVF’s site regarding how The Livestock Conservancy defines terms). Consider the black-footed ferret, which had a population of a whopping 18 at one point3

Focusing on flexibility means the best chance a given species has to maintain maximal genetic diversity in the long-term. Which is what zoos want for their endangered species, and is not a concern for dairy cattle.

When I was studying all of this, I was working with the National Zoo in D.C.. My thoughts, my education, and my focus came from those ideals: maintain maximal genetic diversity for as long as possible, potentially while working long-term with incredibly limited numbers of individuals.

Speaking to Bowley was fascinating, and gave me an interesting new perspective on my old work. I loved hearing the story of SVF (which I will share more of if people are interested4), and also getting the insights I was missing when I was so bummed out in D.C. last January.

And now you know the rest of that story.

If you’d like a little more education on the dairy portion of this topic, Gastropodcast has a fantastic episode that discusses a lot about the dairy industry. Be forewarned, however, that the episode is a little tough, as it also touches on the connections between early dairy industry days and the disgusting attitudes regarding eugenics much of the United States (including governments at many levels) held in the early 1900s.

1 Well, I’d intended the linked post to be the post immediately preceding this one. Then I fumbled my scheduling, and here we are.

2 “Gamete” is the term for sperm, egg, seed, pollen, etc. It’s the overarching term that doesn’t imply sex, and depends (usually) on context to clear up whether we’re discussing, for example, sperm or pollen.

3 Oddly, I recall from many a class and from speaking to people involved with this project at the zoo that the number was 13, but time will do funny things to memory.

4 Please be interested, dear readers. It’s really a neat thing, and I’d love an excuse to talk (learn) about it more. And possibly email Bowley more questions.