Scientists turn to stem cells to save northern white rhino

There are a good number of animal species on earth that are teetering on the brink of extinction. In some cases, there are literally only a handful left, and one such animal under threat is the northern white rhino.

By official count there are only three, but scientists think that they will be able to slowly save the rhino from sure extinction by using frozen and living rhino cells and then turning them into stem cells.

The stem cells will then in turn be converted into eggs and sperm, and through the process of artificial insemination, will hopefully produce a baby northern white rhino – by using a southern rhino as a surrogate.

“Our first and most pressing objective is to identify, develop, refine, and customise the measures needed to produce a NWR offspring. Once this has been achieved, our second goal would be to increase the population as fast as possible so as to remove the (sub)species from immediate extinction risk,” detailed the plan published by Zoo Biology, which involves teams from the San Diego Zoo Global in California and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.

The problem with the method, is that no one has ever made a viable rhino embryo using IVF, and according to Nature magazine, one has never been implanted into a surrogate rhino.

But reproductive biologist Thomas Hildebrandt, who leads the Leibniz team, is confident in the process –  although it can take many years to perfect.

“Najin or Fatu will see another northern white rhino before they die. That I can guarantee,” he told the magazine. Najin and Fatu are two of the last surviving northern white rhinos, and the only source of egg cells.

If the process is successful, it could set a roadmap in place for other species to be saved from extinction, such as the rhino population in southern Africa.

[Image – CC by 2.0/Steve Garvie]


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