A study that could help develop an artificial milk formula for baby pandas has been launched by scientists at the University of Glasgow.
Staff at Edinburgh Zoo are currently on stand-by to assist giant panda Tian Tian give birth – experts believe she may be pregnant and could go into labour this week.
Pandas sometimes reject their offspring and if Tian Tian were to have twins, one of these would almost certainly be rejected and not receive the vital first milk from their mother.
At the moment, adapted cows milk is used to hand-rear panda cubs but conservationists in China would like to develop an artificial milk formula specifically for pandas and have requested help from the University of Glasgow.
State of the art technology is being used in the new study led to identify and characterise the protein and other molecules in the first panda milk, known as colostrum, and the later milk.
The results could help develop a formula that would be tailored for panda cubs.
This colostrum milk from the mother panda contains a large amount of antibodies needed to help protect the newborn from disease and without it they would die.
Professor Malcolm Kennedy, who is leading the research, said: “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.
“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.”
The study is being led by Professor Kennedy, of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Glasgow, 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 running the Chinese arm of the project, which is part-funded by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan, China.