January 20, 2019

Rhino IVF Could Resurrect Earth's Most Endangered Mammal

07 July 2018, 06:48 | Dale Webster

A northern white female rhinoceros named Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2015

A northern white female rhinoceros named Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2015

A team of worldwide researchers may have found a way to save the critically endangered northern white rhino using in vitro fertilisation (IVF). "They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother", says Prof Thomas Hildebrandt, Head of the Department of Reproduction Management at the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in Berlin.

However scientists have a stock of stored frozen sperm from male northern white rhinos that could rescue the animal from extinction. It is first documented generation of blastocyst, or pre-implantation rhino embryos, using IVF procedures that had never been previously tried with the species.

Sudan, the northern white rhino's last male - once called the "most eligible bachelor in the world" by the dating app Tinder - died in March.

Alternatively, if scientists are allowed to take eggs from the two living northern white rhinos, a pure-bred calf could be born. An global team of researchers successfully managed to adapt reproduction techniques used in horses to the special circumstances of rhino species, opening up the potential to bring back NWR from the brink of extinction. "Any embryos produced would likely need to be cryopreserved (or frozen) until a surrogate could be set up".

Several critics of the latest work told The Associated Press that it is too late for the northern white rhino, since their numbers have reached the point of no return.

Harvesting eggs from the two living northern white rhino (NWR) females is also a possibility.

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.

The only hope for the northern white rhino is to join that list.

There's a hopeful thread in a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications: For the first time, scientists have used in vitro fertilization to create viable rhino embryos. This means they have the technology and experience to replicate the procedure with pure northern white rhino genetics.

In order to create a hybrid embryo, the team of scientists used an adapted technique of artificial insemination of horses.

Dr Hildebrandt added: "We are quite confident with the technology".

"The concern in the conservation community is that people will hear this and think, 'We can save the rhinos with science and then become more complacent about the other strategies we have in action now, ' " Roth said. First, that rhino eggs can be captured from live females.

"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. Jan Stejskal, who is a part of the research team said, "We now see clearly a moral obligation not only to help the NWR to somehow survive in captivity but later even help them get back to their original range and be wild again".

"What we've done is very similar to what's done to couples with fertility problems", Galli said.

Stejskal is part of the global team of scientists and conservationists trying to keep the rhinos from slipping into extinction.

Terri Roth and William Swanson of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, in a comment on the study, said ART alone can not save a species from extinction.

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