Scientists create hybrids to ‘bring back’ near-extinct rhino

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Scientists have created hybrid embryos from the sperm of near-extinct northern white rhinoceroses in the laboratory, hoping they can ultimately help save the species.

There are only two northern white rhinos in the world but scientists say they could be closer than ever to preventing their extinction - thanks to IVF-ready embryos.

However, even if the implantation of clean embryos in future will result in the appearance of healthy offspring, the Northern white Rhino is facing another big problem: lack of genetic diversity required for healthy populations.

In March, the last male northern white rhinoceros (NWR) died, leaving behind just two females of the subspecies. An worldwide 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.

The Chicago Tribune's Frank Jordans writes that scientists' long-term goal is to harvest eggs from Najin and Fatu, thereby enabling them to create wholly northern rhino embryos.

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The team now hopes to use the technique to collect eggs from the last two northern white rhinos - Najin and Fatu, the daughter and granddaughter of Sudan.

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

Several generations of intensive interbreeding would dilute out the southern white rhino genes, "getting us to the point where we basically have a 99 percent northern white rhino", says Terri Roth, vice-president of conservation and science and CREW director at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, who was not involved in the study.

"Achieving the latter requires navigating an untrodden path fraught with obstacles, and it remains unlikely that a viable population of northern white rhinos will be restored". "Then we do the same procedure, using eggs and sperm grown from "reprogrammed" stem cells of these animals", said Thomas Hildebrandt (Thomas Hildebrandt) the Leibniz Institute in Berlin (Germany). Two females remain in captivity, but they are infertile.

To produce healthy rhinoceros calves, the fertilized egg cells must be implanted into healthy rhinoceros females of reproductive age.

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For one, the creation of hybrid northern and southern white rhinos could lead to almost pure northern specimen after generations of inbreeding that would dilute southern genes.

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

The next challenge will be to transfer the frozen embryos to the surrogate mothers to establish and carry the pregnancy to term.

"Once we can create an embryo, that doesn't mean we are yet able to put the embryo into a surrogate mother to create purebred northern white rhinos on the ground, but it's a step in the right direction".

The scientists hope they could make enough rhino babies this way to have a genetically diverse population that could, eventually, be re-introduced into their traditional range.

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Researchers have increased efforts to develop new scientific advances to bring the species back to life again. "I do think that if there's one thing we should learn from this, it's that we shouldn't allow species to get to such a critical state that these high-tech approaches are the only ways of saving its genes". According to him, the gradual disappearance occurred due to the fact that grams of the horns of these rhinos were worth more than gold and hunters killed the animals one by one.

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