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Scientists create embryos, hope to save near-extinct rhino

06 July 2018

The next step for the team is to harvest eggs from the last two female northern white rhinos, fertilize them with the male sperm cells of their species, and then implant these embryos to a surrogate mother rhino.

The team's work, using a recently-patented, two-metre (6.6-foot) egg extraction device, resulted in the first-ever test tube-produced rhino embryos.

According to the New York Times' Steph Yin, the team of global scientists drew on samples from four northern males and two southern females, ultimately creating four hybrid embryos and three full southern white embryos. They are both protected by armed guards round the clock.

The news of Sudan's death due to age-related illnesses at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy had devastated conservationists and scientists who were at the time working to save the northern white rhino from extinction.

Unless the IVF techniques work out, these species are doomed to die.

Two of the resulting hybrid embryos, who started their lives in lab dishes, have been frozen for later implementation, although such a transfer procedure is yet to be developed for rhinos.

So, the researchers would create germ cells using stem cells from now dead Northern White Rhinos, then they'd turn those into new eggs and sperm, increasing the genetic diversity beyond those few existing individuals. There are 21,000 SWRs and they can be used as surrogates.

The short timeline is necessary, he said, so that a baby northern white rhino could be socialized by members of its own subspecies.

"And there are just two female northern white rhinos alive today, so acquiring white rhino [eggs] will be challenging and their number will be limited". As scientists hope samples of tissues of such animals will help a modern or future environmentalists to revive these species and restore their populations. Better still, the embryos give researchers a source of stem cells, which could be turned into better quality sperm and eggs. Several embryos are now cryopreserved for future transfer into surrogate mothers to carry a pregnancy to term.

The embryo was developed to the blastocyst stage, according to the Daily Mail who reported on the breakthrough.

"Taking into account 16 months (of) pregnancy, we have a little more than a year to have a successful implantation".

"Our goal is that within three years we have the first northern white rhino calf born". All conservation efforts to save this species have been foiled by human activities such as poaching, civil war and habitat loss.

The research is facilitated by the Dvur Kralove Zoo and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

The project team is hopeful of getting permission to take eggs from the last two female NWRs from the Kenyan authorities. Of these 13 eggs, four developed into hybrid embryos. However, the procedure that requires the insertion of a special instrument into the rectum, is risky, because Rhino should be put to sleep for two hours. We are very thankful for all donations received from private people supporting our race against time. "I do think that if there's one thing we should learn from this, it's that we shouldn't allow species to get to such a critical state that these high-tech approaches are the only ways of saving its genes".

IVF techniques have not been a big success.

As more species slide towards extinction, the use of assisted reproductive technologies as a conservation mechanism has entered the spotlight.

Some experts have warned it could already be too late, however.

But Mr Hildebrandt stood by the effort, saying: The northern white rhino didn't fail in evolution.

Scientists create embryos, hope to save near-extinct rhino