Could IVF really save the world's most endangered animal?

07 July, 2018, 18:02 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • The pre-implantation embryos are known as blastocysts

A team of scientists says that they have grown embryos containing the DNA of the male NWR and hope to save the subspecies from extinction.

According to Thomas Hildebrandt who led the work published in the journal Nature Communications, it's a race against time.

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

It offers a possibility to rescue the genes of a subspecies that, following the death of the last male northern white rhino earlier this year, is now represented by just two elderly females. This put the species on the brink of extinction with seemingly no chance of natural reproduction as the only two known to exist are both female.

The breakthrough was announced Wednesday by the Dvur Kralove Zoo and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Najin (right) and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinoceroses, graze at the ol-Pejeta conservancy in Nanyuki, north of capital Nairobi, in March.

The global team believes that assisted reproduction technologies used for other large mammals, including horses and cows, could be transferred to the surviving northern white rhinos as a way of boosting their reproductive capacity.

"Our results are solid, reproducible and very promising".

In the journal Nature Communications, Prof Thomas Hildebrandt, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and his worldwide team of colleagues, described the complexities of safely extracting an egg, or oocyte, from a two-tonne female rhino.

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A 28-year-old rhinoceros named Najin and her daughter, Fatu, are the only northern white rhinos on the planet. "But I am afraid it is very much Nero fiddling after Rome is burning with respect to (northern) white rhino". 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.

Professor Renfree says the stem cells could hold the key to the survival of the rhinos, and other endangered species. It is first documented generation of blastocyst, or pre-implantation rhino embryos, using IVF procedures that had never been previously tried with the species. These cells are adult cells, such as blood or skin cells, that are reprogrammed to act like stem cells. These experiments gave hope that biologists will be able to turn such cells into full-fledged embryos of extinct animals.

"This is quite the technological feat", said David E. Wildt, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who was not involved with this research.

The scientists extracted a kind of egg cells called oocytes from the closely-related female Southern White Rhinos.

To my mind, the time to save the northern white rhino has passed. Thanks to the continued dedication from scientists, conservationists and philanthropists across the world however, the miracle of their renaissance may now actually become a reality. Artificial insemination - an assisted reproductive technology - has been used to produce offspring with 60 mammals, including the giant panda, black-footed ferret and Asian elephant, and 35 non-domestic birds.

For Galli, it's a a simple matter of using the best tools at your disposal.

"Many people working in the conservation area are very against using biotechnology", he said.

"We didn't have many options so we had to be realistic."

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