Sunday, 16 December, 2018

Near-extinct northern white rhino could be saved with embryo breakthrough

GettyImages-934988458 Could Northern White Rhino Be Saved From Extinction?
Kristen Harrington | 06 July, 2018, 21:14

However, with sperm available from just four male Northern White Rhinos, the scientists say this method alone won't be enough to restart a genetically diverse, self-sustaining population.

When Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino in the world, died in Kenya in March 2018, the species was as good as extinct. The team said their ultimate goal is to see the first northern white rhino calf born in three years. Now, only two members of the species remain-a 28-year-old female named Najin and her 18-year-old daughter Fatu, both of whom are housed at a Kenyan animal conservancy under constant armed guard.

How do you carry out rhino IVF?

The worldwide team of researchers, led by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, have used an existing assisted reproduction technology developed for horses, and applied it to the white rhino. This technology is "a decade or so" from being developed, the researchers reported.

"It's very unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation".

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The southern white rhinoceros is a subspecies of the white rhino and its population is now rated as "near threatened" by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with about 21,000 individuals remaining.

Then they put them in test tubes and fertilized the eggs using frozen sperm collected from now-dead Northern White Rhino males. Without any way to procreate naturally, it may look like the subspecies is nearing extinction. Biologically, the writing is on the wall for the sub-species.

"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. The two northern white females can not bear the offspring, and hence, the surrogacy.

Richard Kock, a conservationist at Britain's Royal Veterinary College, said: I have no doubt that its purely scientific merit is laudable and it might have some application to endangered species conservation in the future, but I am afraid it is very much Nero fiddling after Rome is burning with respect to (northern) white rhino.

IVF has been used before successfully in large mammals, such as horses, but this is the first time that rhino embryos have been developed to the blastocyst stage.

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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. "In fact, half of the genetic information of this hybrid embryo comes from the white northern rhinoceros, which is an wonderful success", Rabas was quoted as saying. Therefore, the best way of saving the rhinos from extinction is by stopping poaching but it has proven hard.

Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, tells Yin that there is "a long road from creating an embryo to having a viable birth-and then an even longer path from succeeding once to creating a herd of rhinos". On the other hand, there are still about 21,000 southern white rhinos living in Africa.

Furthermore, even if a few calves are born, "there will still be a lot of work to do in getting those offspring to propagate, and given the limited gene pool, inbreeding depression will be a very real threat", she said.

Speaking about the near extinction of the northern white rhino species, Dr Hildebrandt said: "The northern white rhino didn't fail in evolution, it failed because it was not bulletproof".

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