Rhino IVF Could Resurrect Earth’s Most Endangered Mammal

By Eric Betz | July 4, 2018 12:00 pm
Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, died in March 2018. (Credit: Steve Turn/Shutterstock)

Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, died in March 2018. (Credit: Steve Turn/Shutterstock)

The Northern White Rhino is basically extinct — just two living females remain — yet scientists announced Wednesday that they’ve found a way to bring the species back from the brink.

In a paper published July 4 in the journal Nature Communications, an international team of researchers say they’ve created a first-ever hybrid rhino embryo outside the womb.

The scientists extracted a kind of egg cells called oocytes from the closely-related female Southern White Rhinos. Then they put them in test tubes and fertilized the eggs using frozen sperm collected from now-dead Northern White Rhino males. The last male of their kind, named Sudan, died back in March.

These embryos could become healthy young white rhino calves once implanted into females.

“These are the first in vitro produced rhinoceros embryos ever. 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.

Now that they’ve shown the method works, the team plans to collect oocytes from the last two Northern White Rhinos on Earth, fertilize them, and put the embryos in Southern White Rhino mothers.

The technique was actually adopted from methods already used routinely for cattle and horses. It involves a 6-foot-long high-tech ultrasound machine with a special needle that punctures through intestinal walls to extract the oocytes.

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.

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

Thanks to existing stem cell technology, they should be able to create what scientists call gametes. These are mature sexual reproduction cells, like a sperm or egg, that join to create a zygote, or fertilized egg cell.

So, the researchers would create germ cells using stem cells from now dead Northern White Rhinos, then they’d turn those into new eggs and sperm, increasing the genetic diversity beyond those few existing individuals.

There were 2,000 Northern White Rhinos half a century ago. But the species has since been eradicated due to habitat loss, poaching and civil war.

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  • Dennis Spirgen

    While we struggle to save the Northern White Rhino from extinction, people are going to extreme measures to further increase the human population. (See the article on babies with three parents on this site.) Draw your own conclusion from this.

    • OWilson

      Survival of the fittest?

      We are just the latest species to dominate and exploit our environment.

      We are just an integral part of an evolutionary process, which continues, human hubris aside!

      • Dennis Spirgen

        We are the first species to cause a mass extinction event, putting us in the same category as the Yucatan asteroid impact. We are also the only species that can affect our own evolution. Writing off the consequences of our actions as “evolution happens” is not just irresponsible, it’s lazy.

        • OWilson

          Mother Nature herself is responsible for the extinction of 99.9% of all species that ever existed.

          Our own Great Ape species has survived against all odds, but she will have the last word, what with her daily dose of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, floods, fire, droughts, asteroids, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and a miriad of deadly diseases and plagues.

          You do not have to look far to see “irresponsible” and “iazy” folks.

          You can find them squatting under volcanoes, on earthquake faults, on flood plain lands, amid dry forests, and killing their unborn babies at an unprecedented genocidal rate!

          Some 60,000,000 since Roe vs Wade, they tell us! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Lazy is not spell-checking “iazy.”. LOL! And to the point of the argument , the current mass extinction is humanity’s fault, not mother nature. I realize your own personal extinction, looming ever nearer, probably concerns you more. But for those who take a less myopic view of the world, trying to preserve species that play important roles in a vital, thriving ecosystem, is a worthwhile goal. Also, you might want to provide an actual source for the tangential closing statement you chose to drop into this discussion. Like most of what you say, it strains credibility, particularly when an avowed atheist uses what sounds like a religious fundamentalist talking point.

          • OWilson

            A simple internet search gives:

            60,549,312 in the U.S., since Roe v Wade

            1,500,701,882 Worldwide since 1980.

            And, as usual, Mikey, you are confusing my atheism with being anti religious!

            Religion has often been the useful glue that held civilized societies from killing each other, and of course it also has had it’s evil side.

            One’s beliefs are a very personal thing, even if I don’t share them! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Source, Wilson. Source. Not, “They tell us,” or ” a simple internet search. ” You keep repeating this figure without saying where you got it, or without any details. Such as: how many were actually fully elective late term abortions of viable births, the type most people agree should be restricted? How many were early in the first trimester, before viability is even a question? — You wouldn’t try to scientifically argue that a clump of undifferentiated stem cells in an embryo are equivalent to a 8 or 9 month gestated fetus, would you? How many were done to protect the health or life of the mother, or in cases of severe fatal developmental defects in the fetus? How many ended pregnancies due to rape and incest? If you wish to take this conversation so far off topic, at least be able to answer a few simple questions to show you’ve given your preferred subject the thought it deserves, rather than rhetorical sound bites.

            As for religion, it has clouded people’s views on reproductive issues (and many others) for centuries. Fundamentalists, I can tell you from experience, do not tolerate alternative views in their congregations. I’m willing to tolerate the religious views of others just fine, until they advocate violence, repression, and the suppression of science and reason.

          • OWilson

            There are many so many reasons why abortions are performed, and some are justified (like murders, or even National Debt expenditures) and some are no doubt justified. Too numerous to post in a simple thread like this, but Google is your friend, so feel free to post them here.

            As for religion, we can all agree that intolerance, violent or otherwise, from any group should be condemned and confronted by all civilized societies.

          • Mike Richardson

            … and some are no doubt justified. ”

            Then quit posting one line generalized statistics that you can’t be bothered to support with specific citations. It’s not on me to provide substance to your arguments. And if you agree that some abortions are “justified ,” then you shouldn’t be making generalized statements implying the repeal of Roe v. Wade and bans on all abortions would be the best solution.

            More on topic, the technology of IVF, used to help bring new life into this world, typically results in extra fertilized embryos that are not used. Hence, it has run afoul of the “life begins at conception” crowd. The same folks who are absolutists on abortion for religious reasons therefore oppose reproductive technologies that assist conception. Don’t be like them. Complex issues like reproductive rights and new technologies deserve more thought than inflammatory one line parting shots on a blog post.

          • OWilson

            Here’s a parting shot from the World Health Organization. Latest figures:

            “Key Facts: (latest figures available)

            On average, 56 million abortions occurred worldwide each year in 2010–2014. This is an increase from 50 million annually in 1990–1994, resulting primarily from population growth.”

            That’s 56,000,000 babies “separated permanently from their mother’s womb” to paraphrase your immigration protesters.

            Every year!

            The U.S Abortion Clock is registering 60,552,766 since Roe v Wade!

            Being an atheist, I was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood!

            That was based on their original advocacy of contraception methods, not abortion as a means of birth control.

            Murdering babies after the fact turned out to be anything BUT, “planned perenthood”.

            Stop prevaricating and hiding from the cruel truth about your approval of abortion, Mikey!

            You should be proud of it! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            So you take the extremist position, rather than debating on the statistics regarding the circumstances involved in those abortions. You prefer emotional rhetoric, the hallmark of someone whose convictions are as shallow as he is. That’s NOT something to be proud of, unfortunately.

          • OWilson

            I’m glad I was not one of the 50,000,000 babies aborted every year.

            If that is ‘extremist” to you, so be it, Mikey!

          • Dennis Spirgen

            The 99.9% of species that went extinct due to “Mother Nature” (and I won’t quibble over the accuracy of this estimate), occurred over a period of about 4 billion years. Humans have caused a global mass extinction event in less than 10,000 years. That’s 0.00025% as long. And I’m sorry, but this has absolutely nothing to do with your single-issue fixation on abortion.

          • OWilson

            Any geologist will tell you there a any number of “extinction events” that occurred in a relative blink of an eye.

            From major volcanism, to ancient land dam bursts, to asteroid arrivals, to plagues that decimated Pre-Columbian populations.

            You brought up “lazy” and “irresponsible” in a thread discussing human mortality.

            I happen to think that societal approval and subsidy of killing babies in the womb on such a massive scale, is a lazy and irresponsible attitude to maternal conception, especially in these days of almost guaranteeed contraception choices.

            Just my opinion! :)

          • Dennis Spirgen

            Any geologist will tell you that the decimation of a local population, such as a dam burst or a plague, is not an “extinction event.” He will also tell you that abortion is a completely unrelated topic, which was my other point.

    • Mike Richardson

      Both test the limits of biology, but in the case of the rhino, we’re trying to undo the damage we’ve caused by reproducing so prolifically ourselves and killing other creatures so wantonly. I sympathize with those wishing to be parents, but I particularly think humanity has a responsibility not to be the cause of a mass extinction. Biotechnology, combined with sensible conservation measures, can help us live up to that responsibility.

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