Victorian helps to create hybrid rhinos

Pat Wise
July 8, 2018

This is the first time the procedure had been attempted among northern and southern white rhinos.

The NWR can only reproduce in the zoos very slowly. Eggs and sperm from northern white rhino are in short supply, due to the rarity of the subspecies. But now, new hope is emerging that extinction of the species can still be prevented.

Female southern white rhinos could act as surrogate mothers for a fledgling NWR population, say the scientists whose results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Blastocysts frozen for subsequent transplantation surrogate mothers of the species of southern white rhinos.

In addition to experimenting with the hybrid and northern embryos, scientists are working to turn samples of the rhinos' skin cells into egg and sperm cells.

Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of reproduction management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany said, "These are the first in-vitro produced rhinoceros embryos ever".

"You can't reach the ovaries by hand, so we developed a special device", Prof Hildebrandt explained to BBC News.

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It was the eggs that were more hard to collect. Professor Renfree says the key to the project was new technology developed by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who's based at the Leibniz-Institut in Berlin, that for the first time allowed collection of eggs from the ovaries of rhinoceroses. The successful development of a hybrid embryo is a major step towards the first birth of a Northern White Rhino through artificial reproduction techniques.

European biologists made a decision to save the animals through artificial insemination. Additionally, they created three full southern white rhino embryos. "Now we are well prepared to go to Kenya and collect [eggs] from the last two [northern white rhino] females in order to produce pure [early embryos] where both eggs and sperm are from [northern white rhino]", Hildebrandt said.

"The team is going to harvest additional oocytes (immature eggs) from the last two female northern white rhinos who are now in Kenya", she says.

The "much-hyped" plan for rhino in vitro fertilization is probably too late to save the northern white subspecies, according to Save the Rhino, a London-based group. Next, the researchers fertilized the eggs using sperm collected from now-deceased male NWRs while they were still alive. "We - at Avantea - successfully generated SWR embryonic stem cells with all the features of undifferentiated cells and a high capacity for differentiation in different cell lineages", Prof Cesare Galli reports.

"The proper legislation must be passed, the resources to enforce the regulations must be provided and the law must be upheld", said Dr Roth, who has worked in rhino conservation for more than two decades.

"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. "We didn't have many options so we had to be realistic", he said. "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".

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