Published: Fri, July 06, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

Lab-made embryos may save near-extinct rhino species

Lab-made embryos may save near-extinct rhino species

In 2008, Dr Thomas Hildebrandt and his team at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research collected semen from the last remaining northern white rhino males, in hopes of reviving the species in the future. Additionally, the global team established stem cell lines from blastocysts of the SWR with typical features of embryonic stem cells.

For the researchers, however, a combination of ART and stem cell techniques, could "provide a blueprint on how to save highly endangered species that have already dwindled to numbers that make conventional conservation efforts impossible". Dr. Roth adds that it is necessary to learn from the northern white rhinos' story to ensure that a similar plight does not befall other endangered species.

The southern white rhinoceros is closely related to the northern subspecies and, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is the only surviving rhino species classified as not endangered.

Cesare Galli of the Italian animal assisted reproduction firm Avantea, who worked with Hildebrandt, said there had originally been strong opposition from some conservationists to "interfering in nature" by using IVF or other lab techniques to save the northern white rhino.

An alternative strategy to resurrection would be to secure a safe habitat in the former northern white rhino's range of central East Africa, populate it with southern white rhino and let natural selection run its course. "Any embryos produced would likely need to be cryopreserved (or frozen) until a surrogate could be set up". A southern white rhino could then carry the resultant embryos to full term. 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. Nonetheless, if successful, the goal is to create a population of hybrid rhinos - both southern white and northern white rhinos.

Following Sudan's death, scientists began to look for new ways to restore the species, on the verge of extinction because of the lack of male specimens due to poaching. "Even if the moon and the stars all aligned", and a surrogate rhinoceros gave birth to a hybrid calf, "that still hasn't brought back the subspecies".

In the future, they also hope to use frozen skin cells taken from 13 northern white rhinos to create induced pluripotent stem cells. The team has tissue samples from northern white rhinos.

That is why scientists, alongside with artificial reproduction methods, also work on stem cells development derived from the stem cells obtained from the northern white rhinoceros that have been preserved in the past.

In vitro fertilization is used in the cattle industry to breed more robust herds, and a Cape buffalo was conceived through IVF for the first time in 2016.

These hybrid embryos developed into blastocysts - the stage of development at which the researchers could implant them into a female.

Details of their experiment are published in the journal Nature Communications on July 4.

The world's most critically endangered species, the northern white rhino, is in such peril that now only two females remain.

Mr Hildebrandt hopes the first northern white rhino calf will be born in about three years, saying: We are quite confident with the technology we have developed.

An global team of scientists say they have achieved a breakthrough in the fight to prevent the extinction of the Northern White Rhino.

The NWR can only reproduce in the zoos very slowly. "Now we are well prepared to go to Kenya and collect [eggs] from the last two [northern white rhino] females in order to produce pure [early embryos] where both eggs and sperm are from [northern white rhino]", Hildebrandt said.

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