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Northern white rhinos could be saved from extinction by a lab-grown embryo

The northern white rhino may have found its savior, and it comes from a lab. A few months ago, the last male northern white rhino died, and with him went hopes of preserving the critically endangered species. But now, it seems as though the fate of the rhino may not be so grim after all. Scientists have recently revealed that they have managed to grow embryos containing his DNA, which could save the entire species if implanted in a surrogate rhino.

Today, only two northern white rhinos remain in the world, and alas, both are infertile females. But with the breakthrough of these lab-produced embryos, there could still be hope for the re-emergence of a breeding population.

“Our goal is to have in three years the first NWR calf born,” Thomas Hildebrandt, head of reproduction management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, told journalists with regard to the work. “Taking into account 16 months (of) pregnancy, we have a little more than a year to have a successful implantation.”

The development of the embryo involved the use of a recently patented, 6.6-foot-long egg extraction device, and resulted in the world’s very first test-tube rhino baby to be. The embryos are currently frozen, and Hildebrandt says that they “have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother.” The embryos are not 100-percent northern white rhino, however — scientists used frozen sperm from deceased northern white rhino males, and the eggs of southern white rhino females. However, the hope is that scientists will now be able to use the same method to collect eggs from the two remaining female northern white rhinos. These fully northern white rhino embryos would then be implanted in surrogate southern white rhino mothers, hopefully creating a new northern white population.

“Our results indicate that ART (assisted reproduction techniques) could be a viable strategy to rescue genes from the iconic, almost extinct, northern white rhinoceros,” the team behind the research wrote in the journal Nature Communications.

Of course, the procedure is not entirely foolproof, nor is it necessarily 100-percent safe for the rhinos. “We have to do a full anesthesia, the animal is down for two hours, and it is quite a risky situation,” Hildebrandt noted. “We are highly afraid something unexpected would happen, [and] that would be a nightmare.”

To prepare, some of the existing hybrid embryos are being implanted into southern white rhino surrogates, and we will have to see whether the method ultimately results in a new northern white rhino population.

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