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Down To The Last Three: Can Stem Cell Save Northern White Rhinos From Extinction?

Jun 17, 2016 02:00 AM EDT
Northern White Rhinoceros
This is Nola, a female northern white rhinoceros who died last year, leaving only three of her subspecies behind.
(Photo : Flickr/Creative Commons/mulsanne)

In a quest to halt mammalian extinction, scientists are using stem cells and assisted reproduction technology. But with only three northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) left, can science save them from completely vanishing?

Sudan, Najin and Fatu--who are kept at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya--cannot breed naturally because they are related. It is with this situation that scientists came up with an audacious plan to save them from the brink of extinction.

According to, the process, which will commence in few months, will include making stem cells out of adult rhino skin cells through a process called iPS, or induced pluripotent stem cells.

The pluripotent cells, as mentioned in the article, will allow for the development of genetic diversity within the species, allowing them to reproduce.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) will then be used to create embryos. These will then be placed in a surrogate female northern white rhino.

The rest of the process will include hoping that it will work and the experiment will revitalize the population.
The procedure will be the first of its kind.

The plan has been getting a lot of criticism saying that it is too much and would require a lot of funds. Moreover, they said the money which will be used in this process could just be used to broader conservation efforts like providing them a fitting sanctuary. 

Teams from San Diego Zoo Global in California and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin will lead the rescue plan.

"Unless we act now, the northern white rhino will go extinct. And don't forget that, once we have developed IVF and stem cell technologies to save it, we will then be able to use them to rescue other threatened species," Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin told The Guardian.

"For example, there are only three or four rhinoceros from Borneo left in captivity and none known in the wild," said Hildebrandt. "We could use this technology to rescue them."

The northern white rhinos were once plenty and roaming throughout central Africa. But due to habitat loss and poaching, their population has been declining rapidly over the years.

Rhinos in the wild have a life expectancy of 35 to 40 years, National Geographic notes.

According to Ol Pejeta Conservancy's website, the three remaining northern white rhinos are under 24-hour armed security, a 700-acre enclosure and a nutritious diet supplemented with fresh vegetables.

A GoFund me page was created to support the rescue plan.

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