Scientists Step Closer to Saving Northern White Rhino


There are five steps needed to get to the stage where we see a live birth of a hybrid northern-southern white rhino, and Professor Marilyn Renfree, from the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne, who was part of the team that developed the embryos, says the first step - harvesting eggs and sperm - was one of the most challenging. "They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother", said Prof Thomas Hildebrandt, Head of the Department of Reproduction Management at the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in Berlin.

It's a feat that, in theory, would allow the research team to produce sperm and eggs from the cells, which could then hypothetically be used to create northern white rhino embryos, according to Roth.

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.

"In the near future we are planning to go to Kenya to retrieve the eggs from the bodies of two female Northern white rhinos". To create a self-sustaining population of northern white rhinos with the necessary genetic diversity, scientists will combine stem cell research with other assisted reproduction techniques.

Two of the resulting hybrid embryos, who started their lives in lab dishes, have been frozen for later implementation, although such a transfer procedure is yet to be developed for rhinos.

Experts had anxious resurrecting the subspecies using frozen cells could create a heavily inbred population.

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The Chicago Tribune's Frank Jordans writes that scientists' long-term goal is to harvest eggs from Najin and Fatu, thereby enabling them to create wholly northern rhino embryos.

However, because of the complexity around creating pure northern white rhino embryos, Galli estimates that it will take 10 years to accomplish.

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. The researchers involved in the latest work even extracted stem cells from the embryos to create more of these hybrid embryos.

The new embryos shouldn't take away from other conservation efforts, and the Save the Rhino group states that the focus should be on protecting natural habitats and other critically endangered rhino species as well.

Northern White Rhinos are the most endangered mammals on earth. The procedure was performed on a femalesouthern white rhino but while under a general anesthetic because the procedure is very risky.

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

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To produce healthy rhinoceros calves, the fertilized egg cells must be implanted into healthy rhinoceros females of reproductive age.

'We are quite confident with the technology we have developed'. The team has tissue samples from northern white rhinos.

The scientists hope they could make enough rhino babies this way to have a genetically diverse population that could, eventually, be re-introduced into their traditional range.

Thanks to existing stem cell technology, they should be able to create what scientists call gametes.

"We should be working on all fronts", Roth said.

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