Northern white rhino could be saved from extinction using embryos

Posted July 07, 2018

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy on Thursday announced the creation of the first ever hybrid rhino embryo sparking hopes for the regeneration of the northern white rhino following the death of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, on March 18.

Two of the blastocysts have now been cryopreserved and these frozen embryos could soon be implanted into a southern white rhino surrogate to produce a baby hybrid rhino; preserving at least some of the unique genetics of its northern cousin.

The result is the very first generation of pre-implantation embryos of rhinos in a test tube.

"Our results indicate that (assisted reproduction techniques) could be a viable strategy to resuce genes from the iconic, nearly extinct, northern white rhinoceros and may also have broader impact if applied with similar success to other endangered large mammalian species", according to the paper, published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Even if the researchers manage to create a pure northern white rhino embryo - rather than the hybrid described in the paper - there'd still be several hurdles to clear before a calf could be born, experts said.

The NWR can only reproduce in the zoos very slowly.

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"ART might offer an option for rescuing genes from the northern white rhino, an essential first step in saving this almost extinct rhinoceros sub-species", the paper published in June states.

But the procedure is not without risk: "we have to do a full anaesthesia, the animal is down for two hours, and it is quite a risky situation" for the last two of their kind, conceded Hildebrandt.

The rapid timeline will allow the fledgling rhino to be socialized by the two remaining northern rhinos, theLos Angeles Times' Deborah Netburn explains.

The scientists hope their carefully developed method of assisted reproduction could work with eggs harvested from the two remaining northern rhinos.

Chemical and genetic techniques can be used to get embryonic stem cells to turn into any cell type desired, including egg and sperm cells.

Researchers have increased efforts to develop new scientific advances to bring the species back to life again. This final step toward the birth of a calf containing northern white rhino DNA is no small step, as artificial insemination in rhino has rarely been attempted.

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He had made headlines a few months earlier, when conservationists in Kenya signed him up to Tinder in a bid to help fund his mating with a southern white rhino. Next, the researchers fertilized the eggs using sperm collected from now-deceased male NWRs while they were still alive.

They ended up with a handful of embryos, some of which could potentially be implanted into surrogate rhino mothers.

Embryo transfer - or the use of a surrogate mother - has never been accomplished in rhinos, according to Roth.

Recent research by Dr Tate Tunstall of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and colleagues indicates that there may be enough genetic diversity in the frozen northern white rhino material (from only 12 individuals) to provide a suitably diverse founder population for resurrection.

Stejskal is part of the global team of scientists and conservationists trying to keep the rhinos from slipping into extinction.

"Impressive results in a Petri dish don't easily translate into a herd of healthy offspring", wrote the duo, not involved in the research. "We didn't have many options so we had to be realistic", he said.

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