Embryo breakthrough 'could save northern white rhino'

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The ultimate goal, they say, is to breed a pure northern white rhino population.

"Rhinos are very large (2,000 kg on average), so they have a reproductive tract that is very hard to access". Eggs and sperm from northern white rhino are in short supply, due to the rarity of the subspecies. It struck a bad blow for the species, who were then functionally extinct.

The study titled, "Embryos and embryonic stem cells from the white rhinoceros", was published July 4 in the journal Nature Communications. If they thrive, they will be implanted to surrogate rhino mothers that could, later on, give birth to a rhino calf closely related to Sudan. If they succeed, they can use the cells to produce eggs and sperm that could add enough genetic diversity to the northern white rhino population for it to be sustainable in the wild.

"Our results indicate that (assisted reproduction techniques) could be a viable strategy to resuce genes from the iconic, nearly extinct, northern white rhinoceros and may also have broader impact if applied with similar success to other endangered large mammalian species", according to the paper, published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

"You can's reach the ovaries by hand, so we developed a special device", Hildebrandt told BBC News.

"If we have the technologies to save them, then why wouldn't we try?" said Jan Stejskal, director of the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, where Najin and Fatu were born.

Professor Cesare Galli, whose team generated the rhino stem cells, said: 'Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to self-renew indefinitely and to develop into any cell of a living organism'.

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The embryo was made using sperms harvested from Sudan, the last surviving northern male white rhino that died in March. "They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother", Hildebrandt said in a statement. But even artificial insemination has only really helped save three endangered mammals - the giant panda, Asian elephant and black-footed ferret.

The rapid timeline will allow the fledgling rhino to be socialized by the two remaining northern rhinos, theLos Angeles Times' Deborah Netburn explains.

Keeper Zachariah Mutai attends to Fatu in the pen where she is kept for observation, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya. These are mature sexual reproduction cells, like a sperm or egg, that join to create a zygote, or fertilized egg cell.

"Clearly it's good news, it's a step in the process to eventually being able to create a purebred northern white rhino calf through IVF [in vitro fertilization]", said Olpajeta CEO Richard Vigne. The desperate logic of mixing subspecies and applying assisted reproduction technology is also being discussed regarding the Sumatran rhino.

The survival prospects of the almost extinct northern white rhinoceros seemed bleak for years. The only ones left of his species were only two infertile female rhinos. These lab-produced cells are called induced pluripotent stem cellsor iPS cells.

"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. "But we are extremely confident we can get the [eggs] out".

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