Cells taken from the mouths of the UK’s only giant pandas could be used for research into some of the deadly diseases which threaten the species.
Scientists have produced stem cells from swabs which can be used in research into potential vaccines.
Cells have been taken from the cheeks of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, who live at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) Edinburgh Zoo .
Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas for the RZSS, said: “This week a scientific paper was published regarding a stem cell production project with a number of other prestigious organisations.
“Basically stem cells have been produced from swabs. Why is this important? Because it gives conservationists another method of bio-banking genetic resource other than sperm or eggs.
“Cell lines, created from easily collectable samples like cheek swabs, help with research into some of the deadly diseases that pandas are susceptible to – such as distemper, parvovirus and retrovirus.
“Cell lines allow us to test potential vaccines without having to involve the animals themselves and they can also be used for tissue repair.
“Importantly, this has nothing to do with cloning, although some key figures involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep are sharing their expertise as part of the project.”
Mr Valentine said RZSS is currently facilitating 40 giant panda-related projects around the world.
The research work stems from the giant panda research symposium held in Edinburgh in 2013, when RZSS gathered over 60 experts from around the world to help develop a five-year research plan for giant pandas.
Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years.
The animals arrived on loan from China in December 2011.
Tian Tian was artificially inseminated for the third time earlier this year and vets said she conceived but did not know for definite if she was pregnant.
However, in August the zoo said the pregnancy window had passed and that she would not give birth to a cub this year.
The zoo said it is believed Tian Tian “resorbed her pregnancy in late term”, as is common among giant pandas.