July 17, 2018

Scientists hope test-tube embryos can save near-extinct white rhino

06 July 2018, 09:14 | Edward Lowe

A northern white female rhinoceros named Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2015

A northern white female rhinoceros named Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2015

Researchers from Italy say they have created the first-ever hybrid rhino embryo produced outside the womb, following the death of the last male rhino of the species.

Over the past two decades, attempts at establishing a sustainable northern white rhino population - including natural breeding programs as well as artificial insemination - have been unsuccessful, according to Jan Stejskal, director of communication and global projects at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, who was involved in the study. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers said they've succeeded in creating embryos using frozen northern white rhino sperm and eggs from a southern white rhinoFatu, one of the only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, walks in the pen where she is kept for observation, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya on March 2. They are both protected by armed guards round the clock.

Hope is carrying the hope to prevent the extinction of the Northern White Rhino. "Our goal is that we have, in three years, the first northern white rhino calf born", Hildebrandt told NPR. Instead, they suggested, work should focus on saving other endangered rhino species that can still be found in the wild. In a dish, the scientists used northern white rhinoceros sperm to fertilize the southern white rhinoceros eggs, producing hybrid embryos. There are 21,000 SWRs and they can be used as surrogates. "The northern white rhino didn't fail in evolution", he said. Eggs and sperm from northern white rhino are in short supply, due to the rarity of the subspecies. Scientists hopes their breakthrough technique will lead to the re-establishment of a viable NWR breeding population.

What they want to do is turn these embryonic stem cells into eggs and sperm using stem cell technology. Several embryos are now cryopreserved for future transfer into surrogate mothers to carry a pregnancy to term.

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According to the researchers, only four embryos have survived to the blastocyst stage.

If successful, this could see a calf born within three years in Kenya - and even more at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire.

It was the eggs that were more hard to collect. Professor Renfree says the key to the project was new technology developed by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who's based at the Leibniz-Institut in Berlin, that for the first time allowed collection of eggs from the ovaries of rhinoceroses. All conservation efforts to save this species have been foiled by human activities such as poaching, civil war and habitat loss.

"Our results are solid, reproducible and very promising".

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This lab achievement is a very early step towards the much longer-term goal of resurrecting a population of full-blooded northern white rhinos, said Jan Stejskal, director of worldwide projects at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic and an author of the paper, in a press briefing on Tuesday.

The project team is hopeful of getting permission to take eggs from the last two female NWRs from the Kenyan authorities. But it is a tedious and risky procedure which requires a long device to be inserted in the rectum while the rhinos must be put under anesthetic for two hours.

"We are very afraid that during this procedure can happen something unpredictable". "We should come at it with everything we've got", Roth said.

IVF techniques have not been a big success. "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". They are the black-footed ferret, the giant panda and the Asian elephant. Some experts have criticised the effort however, saying it comes too late.

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