Test Tube Babies – The last remaining hope for Africa’s Northern White Rhinos

northern white rhino

If you have been following our coverage on the Northern White Rhinos (NWR), you know that the last real hope for the endangered species (a gross understatement since no male species are remaining) was Sudan. The male NWR who died from old age and host of health complications.

However, before Sudan’s death, scientists were able to harness his sperm, which will now be merged with hybrid embryos from the Southern White Rhino (SWR) eggs using Assisted Reproduction Technique (ART).

The eggs are from SWR females from European zoos, which were later shipped to AVANTEA, a world-leading ART for large animals located in Italy.

These are the first in vitro produced rhinoceros embryos ever. They have a high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother,” said Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt, the Head of the Department of Reproduction Management at the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.

This is the first glimpse of viable hope the NWR as a species have for their continuity. The death of the only male NWR spelled doom for the species, and now with science and technology, there is a big hope. Once the sperm and the hybrid embryos have successfully merged (through the process of artificial fertilization), the fetus will be implanted in the two female NWR currently residing in custody at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Our results are solid, reproducible, and very promising. Now, we are well prepared to go to Kenya and collect oocytes from the last two NWR females in order to produce pure NWR blastocysts where both eggs and sperm are from NWR,” added Hildebrandt.

However, the scientists understand that since the sperms were from just four male NWR, and there are only two females left in the wild. The assisted reproduction and in-vitro fertilization technique alone will not work in the long run, in as far as creating a self-sustaining population of the rhinos is concerned. For that to happen, the population need to be as genetically diverse as possible.

On that front, scientists are now working on a more innovative approach of generating gametes using stem cell technology. They are therefore working to transform the germ cells into eggs and sperm. This way, they will diversify the founding genetic diversity of the future NWR population by a significant margin.

If their work proves to be successful, the scientists will effectively have laid the blueprint for stem cell research and ART that can be used to save other endangered species. There are also extreme hopes that they could bring back to life species that have been extinct. So perhaps, seeing a dinosaur might soon be something you not only see in the movies but real life as well.

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