Scientists create embryos, hope to save near-extinct rhino

The pre-implantation embryos are known as blastocysts

The pre-implantation embryos are known as blastocysts

Scientists in Europe have announced a major breakthrough in the race to save the northern white rhino from extinction.

According to the New York Times' Steph Yin, the team of worldwide scientists drew on samples from four northern males and two southern females, ultimately creating four hybrid embryos and three full southern white embryos.

However, they consider the experiment to have been a success as it is the first northern-southern white rhino hybrid embryo created by in vitro fertilization to reach the blastocyst stage with a complex cell structure.

Over the past two decades, attempts at establishing a sustainable northern white rhino population - including natural breeding programs as well as artificial insemination - have been unsuccessful, according to Jan Stejskal, director of communication and worldwide projects at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, who was involved in the study. Additionally, the worldwide team established stem cell lines from blastocysts of the SWR with typical features of embryonic stem cells. This was made possible by a method called "assisted reproduction techniques" or ART.

As for the female eggs, they were taken from the southern white rhinoceros from several European zoo parks, including the Dvur Kralove Zoo.

Scientists said the northern white could make a similar recovery through conservation efforts that make use of frozen cell lines. The two remaining female northern white rhinos, who are infertile, were doomed to live out their lives as the last of their kind. It's the most closely related subspecies, with more than 20,000 southern rhinos living in the wild.

The hybrid embryos being grown in the lab contains DNA of Sudan's species.

It will then be planted into surrogate mothers, who are under heavy guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the researchers noted in a statement. In a dish, the scientists used northern white rhinoceros sperm to fertilize the southern white rhinoceros eggs, producing hybrid embryos.

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As more species slide towards extinction, the use of assisted reproductive technologies as a conservation mechanism has entered the spotlight. They also envisioned to bringing already extinct species back from the dead.

Getting this far was no easy feat, however, as the team explained that it had to create an entirely new extraction device just to obtain an oocyte (egg) from the female rhino. The team has tissue samples from northern white rhinos.

The device developed by Professor Hildebrandt, who is also an Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the paper, is now awaiting patent approval and could also be used to collect eggs from other large mammals.

In the meantime, the team will practice, implanting some of their hybrid embryos into SWR surrogates "to test the system". He added: "This is the first step in a long journey to produce living offspring". "They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother", Thomas Hildebrandt, of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, said in a media announcement.

This procedure was meant to create a hybrid species capable of preserve both species, as shows a study published recently in Nature Communications.

"Our goal is to have a northern white rhino calf on the ground in three years", he said.

The team hopes that in the coming months, the Kenyan authorities will give permission for the collection of eggs of the two last females of the Northern white Rhino.

"Rhinos are very large (2,000 kg on average), so they have a reproductive tract that is very hard to access".

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