In an effort to save the northern white rhino population – now down to only three – conservationists are turning to science, specifically IVF (in vitro fertilization).
At a meeting in Vienna, researchers though of a plan to use stem cells to develop fertilised northern white rhino embryos. Then, the embryos would be implanted in surrogate southern who would carry them.
The subspecies vanished rapidly this year due to poaching and loss of habitat. In December 2014, there were six northern white rhinos left on the planet. Angalifu, a northern white rhino male died that same month at the San Diego Zoo. In July, Nabiré, a 31-year-old female, died of a ruptured cyst at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. The last one to die was Nola, a 41-year-old female who passed away at the San Diego Zoo in November.
The three remaining northern white rhinos now live at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Sudan, the only male left, is too old at 42 years to mount one of the two remaining females, Najin and Fatu who also have health problems.
Scientists want to combine pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) with egg and sperm cells collected from the three northern whites. The pluripotent stem cells will also be taken from the rhino’s body and then will be chemically induced to bring them to an earlier phase of development when they were able to turn into any cell of the body. The scientists hope to reverse-engineer body cells into egg cells and sperm.
Using in vitro fertilisation they could make the fertilised embryos, which would be transferred to a surrogate – in this case southern white rhino female (nearest relatives of the northern white rhinos).
However, the plan has its complications because to this point, no one has ever managed to complete in vitro fertilisation on a rhinoceros.
Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, said that for the IVF to work, the cell-culture conditions have to be exactly like the one-of-a-kind environment found in the species’ uterus. The species could also go extinct before scientists successfully create rhino embryos.
Katsuhiko Hayashi, a scientist at Kyushu University, who in 2012 was able to breed mice from eggs, developed form mouse skin cells, also participated at the Vienna meeting. Perhaps the same technology that Hayashi used in mice breeding could also save the northern white rhinos.
Image Source: thinkbrigade