Northern white rhino could be saved from extinction using embryos

The creation of the first ever hybrid rhino embryo was achieved through the fusion of a southern white rhino egg with northern white rhino sperm that had been obtained from Sudan.

However scientists have a stock of stored frozen sperm from male northern white rhinos that could rescue the animal from extinction.

The first rhinoceros embryo created in vitro can help to save the subspecies, the Northern white Rhino from the brink of extinction.

The northern white rhino is the world's most endangered mammal and its situation became especially desperate when the last male of the species, Sudan, died in March.

Scientists cast further doubt of ever saving the northern white rhino species after it was found that mother and daughter Najin and Fatu - the only surviving northern whites - had problems reproducing.

More than 20 egg collections were performed among southern white rhinos from European zoos.

The scientists extracted a kind of egg cells called oocytes from the closely-related female Southern White Rhinos. "Then we do the same procedure, using eggs and sperm grown from "reprogrammed" stem cells of these animals", said Thomas Hildebrandt (Thomas Hildebrandt) the Leibniz Institute in Berlin (Germany).

The northern white rhinoceros needs a miracle.

While any resulting baby rhinos would be hybrids - half northern and half southern white rhino - the experiment is a first step to re-creating an extinct species in the lab, the researchers report in the journal Nature Communications. These are mature sexual reproduction cells, like a sperm or egg, that join to create a zygote, or fertilized egg cell. "They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother", Hildebrandt said in a statement.

The new embryos shouldn't take away from other conservation efforts, and the Save the Rhino group states that the focus should be on protecting natural habitats and other critically endangered rhino species as well. They've already reached out to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where those rhinos live and are awaiting permission to attempt the procedure.

Burgeoning new technology - such as the methods used in this study - may offer promising alternatives for conservation efforts, but technology is not a panacea for wildlife conservation, according to Roth.

The southern white rhino is still quite numerous, with an estimated 21,000 of the animals living in South Africa today.

The last hopes were pinned on four white rhinos. Jan Stejskal, who is a part of the research team said, "We now see clearly a moral obligation not only to help the NWR to somehow survive in captivity but later even help them get back to their original range and be wild again".

Professor Cesare Galli, whose team generated the rhino stem cells, said: 'Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to self-renew indefinitely and to develop into any cell of a living organism'.

"The embryonic stem cells which are viable are potential candidates to create artificial gametes, both eggs and sperm, using a technique now being developed in mice".

This can be attributed to a few factors, said conservation scientists Terri Roth and William Swanson of the Cincinnati Zoo, who were not involved in the new research. We can not afford to adopt a cavalier attitude toward extinction, as though animals were something to bring back at our leisure, he said.

Vanessa Coleman

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