Embryo breakthrough 'could save northern white rhino'

The pre-implantation embryos are known as blastocysts

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

When Sudan, the last northern white rhino bull, died in Kenya in March, that left alive only two females of the subspecies once common in Central and East Africa.

A team of worldwide scientists has performed the first ever in vitro fertilisation for a rhinoceros and researchers say frozen sperm could be used to create new embryos.

In order to increase the supply of eggs and preserve the northern white rhino's genetic diversity, scientists are also working on a second method that would coax frozen skin cells from deceased animals into becoming egg cells, a procedure that has already succeeded in mice. First, that rhino eggs can be captured from live females. The hope is that these hybrid embryos will be implanted into surrogate southern white rhino females in the coming months.

The team was able to extract 13 eggs from 12 female southern white rhinos.

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. 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. In a dish, the scientists used northern white rhinoceros sperm to fertilize the southern white rhinoceros eggs, producing hybrid embryos. "The northern white rhino didn't fail in evolution", he said.

These researchers are certain that this process could save the northern whiterhino.

It's a feat that, in theory, would allow the research team to produce sperm and eggs from the cells, which could then hypothetically be used to create northern white rhino embryos, according to Roth.

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"Our results indicate that ART (assisted reproduction techniques) could be a viable strategy to rescue genes from the iconic, nearly extinct, northern white rhinoceros", the team wrote in the journal Nature Communications. Ultimately, to be useful, these manipulative techniques need to increase the chance of survival of endangered (wild) animal populations.

Why are there so few northern white rhinos left?

"Meanwhile, we don't have enough funding to conserve the other four rhino species, all of which are more threatened with extinction than the white rhino", said Bob Smith, Director of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, England.

However, Terri Roth, author of an accompanying Nature comment piece from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, told Newsweek that we should be cautious about the potential of the new findings. They also showed that the genetic differences between the northern and southern subspecies may be the result of evolutionary adaptations to different habitats.

"A single northern white rhino calf would be a wonderful scientific achievement, and a hope for the future, but that is not the end goal", Durrant said.

There are already southern white rhino now living and breeding in Uganda at the Ziwa Sanctuary.

Ultimately, proponents of the experiment are looking forward to using ART in saving all almost endangered species. Taxon substitution using the southern white rhino would be simpler and more cost-effective than manipulating genes and introducing manufactured hybrids, and would likely have a higher probability of success.

The emergence of new DNA sequencing technologies, cloning and cell reprogramming have opened up new opportunities for salvation while already extinct or endangered animal species.

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