Scientists create embryos, hope to save near-extinct white rhino

Scientists create embryos, hope to save near-extinct white rhino

Researchers used frozen sperm from male northern white rhinos - now deceased - to fertilise eggs from female southern white rhinos, a closely related sub-species, before freezing the embryos in the hope of planting them in a surrogate female southern white rhino.

Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin said it will be a race against time, 'Taking into account 16 months pregnancy, we have a little more than a year to have a successful implantation'. Once that was done, the research team crossed the oocytes in the laboratory with the frozen sperm of two northern white rhino males. Now scientists have created embryos of hybrid Northern/Southern white rhinos.

However, latest scientific advances in stem cell research brought Dr Hildebrandt and his global team new hope in resurrecting the species.

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.

The last hopes were pinned on four white rhinos, two males and females living in zoos and nurseries in the United States, the Czech Republic and Africa.

Professor Hildebrandt and his team were able to collect viable eggs from both southern and from the remaining two female northern white rhinos.

"Rhinos are very large (2,000 kg on average), so they have a reproductive tract that is very hard to access". The scientists had planned that the first Northern white Rhino to be born in the next three years. However, the procedure that requires the insertion of a special instrument into the rectum, is risky, because Rhino should be put to sleep for two hours.

"To me if we have a chance to save them I do not understand why we should not - I do not want to witness northern white rhinos disappear in front of our eyes just because we did not care". So far, they have generated 12 rhino stem cell lines, Hildebrandt said.

The resulting egg was fertilized by sperm, taken earlier from Sudan and stored frozen. 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. They plan to use chemical and genetic techniques to transform these ordinary skin cells into more cells resembling embryonic stem cells.

"The northern white rhino didn't fail in evolution", Hildebrand told reporters.

The device developed by Professor Hildebrandt, who is also an Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the paper, is now awaiting patent approval and could also be used to collect eggs from other large mammals.

"The next big step is to see if we can transfer those embryos to a recipient mother, and then can they develop to a fetus, and then a healthy offspring", said Pierre Comizzoli, a research scientist at the Smithsonian specializing in assisted reproduction, who did not work on the study. "Previous attempts to establish a managed breeding program for this sub-species failed". But the species has since been eradicated due to habitat loss, poaching and civil war. "We should come at it with everything we've got", Roth said. The animals were killed for their horns, a gram of which valued more than gold and served as a status symbol for many.

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