The first calf born through in vitro fertilization is now part of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd. The calf, a 10-month-old named IVF1, is also the first in the world to be conceived using eggs and sperm collected from Yellowstone bison, one of the last genetically pure herds in the country.
IVF1 was released into the herd – along with her mother and three other calves and their mothers – in mid-March, boosting the herd, which lives at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space, from 36 to 44 animals.
Jennifer Barfield, a reproductive physiologist with the Colorado State University Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory, is the lead scientist on the project. She said IVF1 is just the beginning.
“We’re really excited because that proves that we can do it using the (reproductive) material that we’re able to collect,” she said. “But I think we need to improve that process and streamline it and make it more efficient.”
The Yellowstone bison are particularly important. While most bison have been interbred with cows, they haven’t, leaving them genetically 100 percent bison. But some carry brucellosis, an infectious disease that can cause abortions in bison, cattle and other animals. That makes it dangerous to move them from the area to use them in breeding programs.
In 2011, Barfield solved that problem by ridding bison sperm of brucellosis using a technique originally created to clean the semen of HIV positive men. Since then, her reproductive research has birthed calves from artificial insemination and embryo transfer — and now, in vitro fertilization.
Barfield’s reproductive accomplishment is a step forward in the bison conservation efforts. Her lab has about 1,500 frozen embryos that can be used tomorrow or in 100 years. If the Yellowstone herd were to shrink or disappear, pure bison would not become extinct.
The seven other new additions to the herd came from a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The animals – also from the Yellowstone family tree – were part of a research and quarantine program at CSU. They were released into the herd after receiving a clean bill of health.
The federal agency also provided Barfield with bison and reproductive materials, like ovaries, eggs and sperm, for her research into the brucellosis cure and other reproductive techniques.
Barfield and her partners at the City of Fort Collins Natural Area and the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources hope to increase the herd to 100 one day – and maybe spread those genetics beyond Colorado by, said Barfield, creating “offspring like IVF1 that can be then moved to other herds or to help start new herds with Yellowstone genetics – which is really valuable from a conservation perspective.”