Can this “frozen zoo” bring the Northern White Rhino back to life?

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DR. BARBRA DURANT: Agree with the probe. Agreed.

NARRATOR: This is Dr. Barbara Durant. She’s working to save a species, and damn it, she puts her arm full. wow. Let’s go back to the beginning and put some context. It’s a zoo. A frozen zoo.

DURING: So I can take a few out. He’s a South African cheetah, he’s a mountain yellow-legged frog, he’s a hamachi and a tiger, also an endangered species. So each species here has its own unique and interesting story

NARRATOR: Inside these reservoirs of liquid nitrogen, the genetic heritage of thousands of species is preserved. No, not dinosaurs, it’s Jurassic Park, but yeah, same idea I guess. Either way, it’s the northern white rhino. It’s not a dinosaur but it’s functionally extinct. There are two surviving female specimens but neither can reproduce. This extinction is the result of human activity, mainly poaching. However, due to the work being done here at the frozen zoo and with the cooperation of some southern white rhinos, this may not be the end of the line for the northern white rhino. In fact, with any luck, it could be a very short extinction.

COWORKER: Yeah, come on. Wallace, come on Oh money, good hustle.

DURING: It’s just the most wonderful job anyone can have. I think interacting with animals is my favorite part. I also enjoy being in the lab and doing basic science.

NARRATOR: It’s Dr. Barbara Durant, she’s the director of reproductive science at the San Diego Zoo and takes care of their frozen zoo.

DURING: It is a unique collection of cell lines, sperm, embryos, DNA from over 10,000 individual animals. The reason we have a frozen zoo is that species are disappearing every day. Without this reservoir, we have no hope of bringing them back.

NARRATOR: Now Dr Durant and his team are working with genetic data in their frozen zoo to do something that has never been done before, bring a species back from extinction.

DURING: Okay, that’s a northern white rhino here. I would say bringing back the northern white rhinos is the most ambitious project we have undertaken. This species has been poached to extinction. We would call the northern white rhino functionally extinct because there are two living northern white rhinos. They’re both females, but they’ve been found unable to reproduce, and there’s no male, which makes things a bit more difficult. However, we can actually bring the northern white rhino back from extinction with the living cells we have in the frozen zoo.

NARRATOR: Much of the samples in the frozen zoo or tissues like skin cells. Recent advances in technology have allowed researchers to convert skin cells into stem cells, and stem cells can turn into any other type of cell.

DURING: Our goal is for these cells to grow into sperm and eggs, so those are the next steps.

NARRATOR: This means they can create fertilized eggs. No, not those kind of eggs. Rhinos are mammals. Please stop putting Jurassic Park references here. Once they can reliably create fertilized northern white rhino embryos, they can just be helped by these lovely ladies, a group of southern white rhinos helping to bring back the northern white rhinos.

DURING: When we started doing breeding research with rhinos, we needed them to be calm and comfortable so we could do our research non-invasively and that means we weren’t anesthetized. This is a voluntary process for these animals. If they are uncomfortable on any given day, we stop, open the door and release them

COWORKER: Not having it all? Well, unfortunately, I don’t think she’s up for it yet. In fact, I was personally impressed with how quickly they completed the training. Over the years of the program, we have performed between 700 and 800 ultrasounds. We’ve collected quite a bit of data and that’s all because they’re participating in these sessions.

DURING: The process we use to view the reproductive system is called transrectal ultrasound. Agreed. enter with the probe. So we’re actually going into the rectum because the rectum is above the reproductive tract. So the ovaries are in there, but I don’t have good eyesight yet. The reason we do all this training and ultrasound is so we can understand the reproductive cycle in very minor detail. If we know when the animal is going to ovulate, we can time artificial insemination for maximum success. The ultimate goal for southern white rhinos is to be recipients of northern white rhino embryos that we would produce in the lab, so all of that groundwork has to be done for the end goal to be achieved of having females able to carry a northern white embryo to turn.

NARRATOR: Currently, these southern white rhinos are being evaluated to ensure they are ready to carry the first new generation of northern white rhinos. There is enough genetic diversity preserved in the frozen zoo to create a self-sustaining population of northern white rhinos in the wild.

DURING: This is a very long-term project, we are talking about decades. I feel a very strong personal obligation to do this work because humans have driven so many of these species to the brink of extinction, we have a responsibility to bring these animals back. The hardest part of this project is developing the technologies. No other species were brought back from the edge of extinction with this kind of cellular techniques. If this project succeeds, we will have shown the way to make this possible for a number of other species and it would be a tremendous achievement for the human race. But it’s bittersweet to think that I won’t see the end of this project. Maybe I will, I live to be a hundred. I may be alive and I may not know.

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