Northern white rhino 'could be saved from extinction'

Pablo Tucker
July 7, 2018

Scientists in Europe have created the first-ever hybrid rhino embryo produced outside the womb, a major breakthrough in the race to save the northern White rhino from extinction.

"We thought, 'The story's over, '" said Dr Hildebrandt, a wildlife reproductive biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the Free University of Berlin.

In order to increase the supply of eggs and preserve the northern white rhino's genetic diversity, scientists are also working on a second method that would coax frozen skin cells from deceased animals into becoming egg cells, a procedure that has already succeeded in mice.

The first rhinoceros embryo created in vitro can help to save the subspecies, the Northern white Rhino from the brink of extinction.

Sudan, the last male northern White rhino, died due to age-related illnesses but the continued dedication from conservationists, the species renaissance may become a reality.

It is the first time the assisted reproduction technique, adapted from horses and cattle, has ever been used on rhinos. As there were very few frozen NWR eggs exist, the scientists started to create hybrid embryos and see how the technique works.

The rapid timeline will allow the fledgling rhino to be socialized by the two remaining northern rhinos, theLos Angeles Times' Deborah Netburn explains. No northern white rhinos remain in the wild.

An worldwide team of scientists has successfully created hybrid in vitro embryos, combining the almost extinct northern white rhinos and its relative species, the southern white rhinos. These are mature sexual reproduction cells, like a sperm or egg, that join to create a zygote, or fertilized egg cell.

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

"Once we can create an embryo, that doesn't mean we are yet able to put the embryo into a surrogate mother to create purebred northern white rhinos on the ground, but it's a step in the right direction". It struck a bad blow for the species, who were then functionally extinct.

These achievements raise the possibility that a hybrid rhino, which preserves numerous genes of the northern white rhino, could be bred in future.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications on Wednesday.

As for the female eggs, they were taken from the southern white rhinoceros from several European zoo parks, including the Dvur Kralove Zoo.

Because of the many biological and technological uncertainties that dot the leap from an embryo to a healthy rhino baby, scientists are looking into a years-long process and mulling different possibilities. Artificial insemination - an assisted reproductive technology - has been used to produce offspring with 60 mammals, including the giant panda, black-footed ferret and Asian elephant, and 35 non-domestic birds.

"We are now able to acquire embryonic stem cells related to southern white rhinoceroses that contain all the properties of an undifferentiated cell with a high ability to differentiate", Galli said.

"A single northern white rhino calf would be a wonderful scientific achievement, and a hope for the future, but that is not the end goal", Durrant said. All conservation efforts to save this species have been foiled by human activities such as poaching, civil war and habitat loss.

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