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Scientists create hybrids in race to save white rhino sub-species

06 July 2018

Using frozen sperm from northern white rhinos and eggs from closely related southern white rhinos, the scientists created hybrid embryos that can potentially be implanted into surrogate southern white rhino mothers.

Keeper Zachariah Mutai attends to Fatu in the pen where she is kept for observation, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya.

"Our goal is to have a northern white rhino calf on the ground in three years", lead author Thomas Hildebrant, a wildlife reproductive biologist at Germany's Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, told reporters during a Tuesday press briefing. If they run out of supply or the northern rhinos meet an untimely end, there may be no going back.

The last male of these species (NWR) called Sudan died of age-related complications this year in Kenya. Understandably, given the lack of living subjects, the northern white rhino sperm were not the highest quality.

"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. He added: "This is the first step in a long journey to produce living offspring".

In the meantime, the team will practice, implanting some of their hybrid embryos into SWR surrogates "to test the system".

It's a tricky process. They, like their "reprogrammed" cousins hopes ecologist, will help scientists to quickly restore the population of these rhinos. The females had to be anesthetized and a special tool used to collect their egg cells.

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"We are quite confident with the technology we have developed", he said during a telephone conference with reporters detailing the research.

And the frozen sperm was not the greatest.

To do this, as shown by further experiments, it was not so easy as it looks - all three of rhinoceros, whose genetic material was able to save was enough older animals, and their sperm was originally in very poor condition. To date, the embryos are showing all vital signs of the healthy embryonic stem cells. The team has tissue samples from northern white rhinos.

But they've already got a plan for developing that diversity.

"If we could create a protocol for creating rhino gametes from stem cells, this is the most promising way forward".

Professer Hildebrandt, right front, and his team extracting eggs from a southern white rhino using a newly developed ovum pick-up device.

The breakthrough has renewed hopes of preventing the northern white rhino from disappearing from the face of the earth.

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"Our results suggest that these methods could play a valuable role in the effort to save rhinoceros populations on the brink of extinction", they wrote.

This can be attributed to a few factors, said conservation scientists Terri Roth and William Swanson of the Cincinnati Zoo, who were not involved in the new research.

"It remains unlikely that a viable population of Northern white rhinos will be restored".

For the researchers, however, a combination of ART and stem cell techniques, could "provide a blueprint on how to save highly endangered species that have already dwindled to numbers that make conventional conservation efforts impossible".

"In nearly all cases, they result in lost pregnancies and/or neonatal mortalities, efficiency is extremely low and overall conservation value questionable", they wrote.

"In our laboratory, we have developed methods in order to mature the eggs and its fertilization [.] using a microneedle inserted into the cytoplasm of the egg", said a representative Cesare Galli from Avantea.

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Scientists create hybrids in race to save white rhino sub-species