Groundbreaking IVF rhino pregnancy sparks hope for northern white rhino

The IVF success could help save the species. Picture: BioRescue

The IVF success could help save the species. Picture: BioRescue

Published Feb 2, 2024


Scientists, as part of the Biorescue project, have successfully transferred a lab-created rhino embryo into a surrogate mother from the closely related southern white rhino subspecies.

The achievement marks a significant leap towards saving the northern white rhino, with only two surviving individuals, Najin and Fatu, residing under strict security at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Biorescue noted in a press release that the journey involved overcoming numerous challenges, from extracting eggs from two-tonne rhinos to creating the first-ever rhino embryos in a lab.

After 13 attempts, a viable IVF pregnancy was achieved using a surrogate southern white rhino.

Tragically, the surrogate mother succumbed to infection, emphasising the difficulties of the groundbreaking procedure.

With the success of IVF using southern white rhinos, the next critical step is to repeat the process using northern white rhino embryos. Stored in liquid nitrogen in Germany and Italy, there are only 30 embryos created from eggs harvested from Fatu and sperm collected from two deceased male northern white rhinos.

Given the age and health constraints of the last two surviving northern whites, the embryos will be implanted into the womb of a surrogate southern white rhino.

According to Biorescue, this unprecedented cross-subspecies IVF aims to preserve the social communication and heritage of the northern white rhino by allowing the calf to learn from the remaining individuals.

Simultaneously, researchers are exploring an even more experimental technique, creating rhino sperm and eggs from stem cells. This ambitious endeavour, though fraught with challenges, could contribute to bolstering the northern white rhino population in the long run.

Acknowledging the human-induced threat to the northern white rhino, conservationists stress the responsibility to deploy available techniques to prevent their extinction.

The Biorescue project coordinator emphasised that humanity's role in the rhino's plight obligates us to use every available means to attempt their rescue.

While some argue the allocation of resources, the project coordinators and conservationists affirm their commitment to doing everything "humanly possible" to protect and recover the species.

Speaking to the BBC, Susanne Holtze, a scientist at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, part of the Biorescue project, said: "To achieve the first successful embryo transfer in a rhino is a huge step."

"But now I think with this achievement, we are very confident that we will be able to create northern white rhinos in the same manner and that we will be able to save the species."

The northern white rhino, considered a critical part of the ecosystem, faces an uncertain future, but ongoing efforts strive to secure its survival.

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