Can new rhino embryos save endangered sub-species? 2018-08-29T11:15:45+01:00
r&d genetic projects

Creation of hybrid rhino embryos to save species

In his immortal line in Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm states, “Life finds a way.” And so it seems with a recent endeavour to save a rhino sub-species that is near extinction.

In March 2018, the last male northern white rhinoceros ascended to the savanna in the sky, leaving behind two females. There is now no way for the sub-species to procreate naturally, potentially signalling the end for this beautiful creature. But an international team of scientists has prepared for this eventuality, and devised a way to ensure the males genes don’t disappear for good.

A hybrid species

In July, a study was published in Nature Communications, in which it was shown that hybrid embryos could be created in a lab environment. Sperm was collected from the male rhino while he was still alive and used to fertilise eggs extracted from females of the southern white rhinoceros sub-species. The embryos reached the stage at which they can be implanted into a female and were frozen, with the intention of performing IVF on a southern white rhino in the future.

A fully northern white rhino

Of course, the end goal is to ensure that the particular northern white rhinoceros sub-species doesn’t become extinct. That means extracting eggs from the two surviving females. The task is a delicate and challenging one, since the ovaries are close to a main artery, which if punctured could result in the animal’s death.

The researchers have contacted Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to request access to the female rhinos. Their aim is to facilitate the birth of the first northern white rhino calf within three years, which would demand an egg collection by the end of 2018.

A lab embryo to a fully formed rhino calf is still an extremely tough task, requiring the pursuit of several different strategies. It’s by no means certain that the attempts of the team will prove successful, but the importance of the existing male genes is undeniable.

Lessons to learn

There is doubtless a lesson to be learned here. Of the five remaining rhino species, only two are not considered critically endangered. Poaching and habitat loss has led to the near extinction of the Sumatran rhino, for example, of which fewer than 100 members survive. Relying on advanced technology as an option for increasing the number of a species leaves a slim chance for success; scientists around the globe are thus calling for other methods – such as breeding programmes – to be used before it’s too late.

Engaging in gene research

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