London: Scientists are developing an artificial milk formula for panda cubs to boost conservation efforts for one of the world`s most endangered species.
The cute, furry creatures are not always comfortable breeding in a zoo, and will sometimes reject or even accidentally kill their newborn babies if they are feeling stressed.
Similarly, if two cubs are born to a panda, one will be rejected so that all of the mother`s attention and milk can be invested in just one cub.
To lend a helping hand, conservationists in China are keen on developing an artificial milk formula for abandoned or orphaned panda cubs, and are looking for help from scientists at the University of Glasgow.
Researchers at Glasgow are leading a study into panda milk that is being part-funded by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan, China.
The project is being led by Professor Malcolm Kennedy of the School of Life Sciences, in collaboration with Dr Richard Burchmore of the Glasgow Polyomics facility at the University of Glasgow and Dr David Watson at the University of Strathclyde. Professor Hou Rong in Chengdu is leading the Chinese arm of the project.
The team is using state-of-the-art instruments to identify and characterise the proteins and other molecules that make up panda colostrum and the later, mature milk.
Understanding how the composition of panda milk differs from dairy and human milk may assist in the development of a modified formula that can better support baby pandas.
"My interest here is in the biology of lactation in bears. Bears give birth to tiny, helpless cubs that are unusually small relative to their mothers in the case of pandas the weight ratio can be as low as 1:1,000 or less," Kennedy said.
"It could be that panda milk is specially adapted to rear such under-developed young. Indeed, we have found that panda milk takes much longer to convert from colostrum to regular milk than in cows, for example.
"We`re investigating the lactation period from birth to about 150 days. When we look at how levels of different proteins change during panda lactation, we find that these molecules change unexpectedly slowly compared to other placental mammals.
"Also, certain small molecules that include essential nutrients are produced in large amounts at first, then fade away, while some are produced constantly, and others appear later.
"The research will help us understand lactation biology in different types of mammal, bears in particular. We are still a long way from designing a milk substitute for panda cubs, but the kind of data we are generating will set us in the right direction," he said.