Could Recent Stem Cell Research Save the Northern White Rhino?

Reproduction and stem cell researchers meet in Vienna to develop a rescue plan for the northern white rhino

International scientists met in Austria in early December for a conference on Conservation by Cellular Technologies. The last three northern white rhinos in the world, who live on Ol Pejeta, are completely incapable of natural reproduction. Experts have concluded that the subspecies can only be saved by using cellular techniques. The conference was supported by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin (IZW), San Diego Zoo Global (USA), Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Austria) and ZOO Dvůr Králové (Czech Republic).

One of the participants in the meeting, the Japanese stem cell scientist Katsuhiko Hayashi (Kyushu University), has already grown mice out of simple skin cells. The plan devised in Vienna is to use natural gametes from the remaining three rhinos, as well as samples collected from dead individuals, and multiply them. Scientists will also use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are taken from somatic cells, for example in the skin. They hope that as research continues to progress, it might be possible to specifically mature the iPS cells into neurons, heart muscle cells or even gametes. In-vitro fertilised gametes can then be introduced into surrogate mothers and a fertile northern white rhino will be produced.

The process will require the latest findings in stem cell research to be adjusted and applied to rhinos, and will be the first use of the technology in wildlife conservation. DNA of a dozen northern white rhinos has been preserved in genetic banks in Berlin and San Diego, and will be used in this project. The first studies have already begun, and the complete rescue and research plan will be published as a status report next year.

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