With only three northern white rhinoceroses left on Earth, conservationists have devised an innovative rescue plan they hope will save these iconic animals before they go extinct. Instead of traditional breeding efforts, researchers will use stem cells to create a viable, self-sustaining population. 

At a meeting in Vienna in early December, a team of experts from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), San Diego Zoo Global, Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Austria and ZOO Dvůr Králové in the Czech Republic decided they could revive these animals using in vitro fertilization, meaning they will create fertilized rhino embryos that will be carried by surrogate mothers. To do this they will collect egg and sperm cells from the remaining three rhinos and combine them with tissue samples -- otherwise known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) -- from dead individuals, according to a news release

The last three northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) live at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. These animals -- a rapidly disappearing subspecies destroyed by habitat loss and poaching -- have had a sad year with the death of three of their relatives, including Angalifu, the second-to-last male that died at the San Diego Zoo in December 2014, making 42-year-old Sudan living at Ol Pejeta the last surviving male; Nabiré, a 32-year-old female who died of a ruptured cyst at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic in July; and Nola, a 41-year-old female that died from an infection at the San Diego Zoo in November.

Stem cells appear to be the animals' last hope, because the two remaining females have health complications that make them unable to carry children and the last surviving male is too old to reproduce naturally. Thankfully, the DNA of a dozen individual northern white rhinos has been preserved in genetic banks in Berlin and San Diego.

The first studies with the remaining cells of the northern white rhinos are underway. While no one has ever successfully completed in vitro fertilization on a rhino of any species, one of the researchers -- a Japanese stem cell scientist Katsuhiko Hayashi from Kyushu University -- has already grown mice out of simple skin cells. Researchers hope to transfer his success to northern white rhinos.

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