Rhino Embryos Made in Lab to Save Nearly Extinct Subspecies

Ismael LynchJul 08, 2018

It offers a possibility to rescue the genes of a subspecies that, following the death of the last male northern white rhino earlier this year, is now represented by just two elderly females.

The answer, The New York Times reports, may be in vitro fertilization.

"Within three years we hope to have the first (northern white) rhino calf born", said co-lead researcher Thomas Hildebrandt in Reuters. An global team of researchers has successfully created NWR hybrid embryos in the lab, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications.

These techniques could become a valuable tool in the conservation of rhino populations, according to the research published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications. "However, we are confident that we can get the eggs", he added.

They used the method to produce rhino embryos with sperm from two dead males. Understandably, given the lack of living subjects, the northern white rhino sperm were not the highest quality.

"Assisted reproductive technologies are very expensive and their success is far from guaranteed".

In a paper published to Nature Communications, Prof Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and a team of worldwide researchers revealed they had recovered sperm from two dead male rhinos. "These techniques have the potential to help the other endangered rhino species, including the Sumatran rhino and the Indian rhino and and other large mammals such as the Gaur, a large Asian cow that is also at risk of extinction".

The breakthrough experiment was conducted with the primary goal of saving the northern white rhinos from extinction.

Only two females, a mother-daughter pair named Najin and Fatu, are still alive at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

A team of scientists designed a hybrid embryo with the DNA of the almost extinct northern white rhino.

It will then be planted into surrogate mothers (Southern White rhino), who are under heavy guard at the conservancy, the researchers said.

The hybrid embryos being grown in the lab contains DNA of Sudan's species.

Still, researchers say it is too soon to write off the northern white rhino for good. The embryos reached the blastocyst stage-a relatively developed stage which boosts the chances of pregnancy after transplantation. An global team of researchers successfully managed to adapt reproduction techniques used in horses to the special circumstances of rhino species, opening up the potential to bring back NWR from the brink of extinction.

Cesare Galli, whose Italy-based company Avantea has lengthy experience with the artificial reproduction of horses, said recent advances in stem cell technology could help the rhino preservation effort. "Now we are well prepared to go to Kenya and collect oocytes from the last two NWR females in order to produce pure NWR blastocysts where both eggs and sperm are from NWR", Hildebrandt notes in the statement.

"The beauty of it is that we have a southern white rhino that is very closely related to the northern white rhino, and it's very likely that a southern white rhino could carry a northern white embryo to term", Roth said.

"The proper legislation must be passed, the resources to enforce the regulations must be provided and the law must be upheld", said Dr Roth, who has worked in rhino conservation for more than two decades.

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