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

06 Julio, 2018, 21:19 | Author: Enrique Watson
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The northern white rhino may be saved from extinction using in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques, a groundbreaking new study has found.

Based on the lack of males, sperm would seem to be a major stumbling block, but forward-thinking researchers had already collected and stored sperm from four northern white rhinos.

Frozen samples of sperm from the last male species of the northern white rhino in the world, named Sudan who died in March this year in Kenya at old age, were used to produce the embryo.

Sudan, the last white male northern rhino in the world, died aged 45 at Ol Pejeta.

The two surviving members of the northern white species - a mother and daughter called Najin and Fatu - live in Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

How do you carry out rhino IVF?

Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of reproduction management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany said, "These are the first in-vitro produced rhinoceros embryos ever". The procedure was performed on a femalesouthern white rhino but while under a general anesthetic because the procedure is very risky.

An worldwide team of zoologists, veterinarians and other researchers plucked unfertilized eggs from southern white rhinoceroses, a closely related subspecies with a population of about 20,000. They injected each egg with the sperm and used pulses of electrical current to stimulate the egg and sperm to fuse. "These techniques have the potential to help the other endangered rhino species, including the Sumatran rhino and the Indian rhino and and other large mammals such as the Gaur, a large Asian cow that is also at risk of extinction". The two subspecies are related, but they have been geographically separated for a long time, Durrant said.

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To broaden the genetic diversity beyond the few individuals left, they plan to artificially generate oocytes from banked somatic cells of northern white rhinos that could be coaxed into gametes using stem cell technology, according to the paper.

The northern white rhinoceros needs a miracle.

Richard Kock, a conservationist at Britain's Royal Veterinary College, said: I have no doubt that its purely scientific merit is laudable and it might have some application to endangered species conservation in the future, but I am afraid it is very much Nero fiddling after Rome is burning with respect to (northern) white rhino. Both of the last two NWR females were born in Dvur Kralove; and now they reside in custody at Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya.

Getting this far was no easy feat, however, as the team explained that it had to create an entirely new extraction device just to obtain an oocyte (egg) from the female rhino. If that's the case, the hybrid NWR/SWR rhino embryos might be our only shot as saving at least some genes of the almost-extinct subspecies.

Northern White Rhinos are the most endangered mammals on earth. Therefore, the best way of saving the rhinos from extinction is by stopping poaching but it has proven hard. In contrast to NWR, there are approximately 21,000 SWR in Southern Africa today.

"Many people working in conservation are strongly against using biotechnologies, which seems insane, because if you have the technology, why not use it for the good?" he said. 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.

"As impressive as science can be, we should not reach a point where these hi-tech approaches are the only source of hope for rescuing genes of valuable individuals, sub-species or entire species".

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