Can test-tube rhinos save dying species?

Can test-tube rhinos save dying species?

Scientists in Europe have created the first-ever hybrid rhino embryo produced outside the womb, a major breakthrough in the race to save the northern White rhino from extinction.

An global team of scientists has now successfully created hybrid embryos from Southern White Rhino (SWR) eggs and NWR sperm using assisted reproduction techniques (ART).

The northern white rhinoceros is the most endangered mammal in the world.

Both are descendants of Sudan and live in Kenya, and were considered infertile. "Already, a half of the hybrid embryo genetic information comes from the NWR", comments Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects at the Safari Park Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic. On the planet there are only two representative subspecies: the daughter of Sudan, Najin and Fatu his granddaughter.

"Assisted reproductive technologies are very expensive and their success is far from guaranteed".

There's a hopeful thread in a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications: For the first time, scientists have used in vitro fertilization to create viable rhino embryos.

Kock and fellow conservationists warned against focussing only on the northern white rhino sub-species, noting that its southern cousin has come back from the brink of extinction and now numbers some 21,000 individuals. As there were very few frozen NWR eggs exist, the scientists started to create hybrid embryos and see how the technique works.

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But Cesare Galli of Italian biotechnology lab Avantea, which specializes in livestock breeding in the lab, said there were not many other choices.

The "much-hyped" plan for rhino in vitro fertilization is probably too late to save the northern white subspecies, according to Save the Rhino, a London-based group. Once this is accomplished successfully, it will be theoretically possible to selectively breed the hybrids to dilute the traits of SWR and concentrate those of the extinct species, giving birth to a pure population of northern white rhino.

These embryos could become healthy young white rhino calves once implanted into females.

There is time pressure, they pointed out, with only two animals still around to socialise the babies in the mysterious ways of northern white rhinos.

Using an IVF method called Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (Icsi), members of the global team injected NWR sperm directly into eggs donated by female southern white rhinos. If they succeed, they can use the cells to produce eggs and sperm that could add enough genetic diversity to the northern white rhino population for it to be sustainable in the wild.

Those embryos are frozen right now and the team says that there is a high chance of establishing pregnancy once the embryos are implanted into the surrogate mother. Scientists began to freeze northern white rhinoceros sperm in 2008, Hildebrandt said, storing 300 milliliters' worth, roughly the volume of a soda can.

The northern white rhino isn't the only rhino that's in trouble, after all: Of the five living rhino species, three are listed as critically endangered because of poaching and habitat loss. Restoration ecologists have similarly replaced extinct giant tortoises with related species in a process called taxon substitution. We are witnessing the development of a method that can help to compensate the negative impact of humans on nature.

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