Researchers get closer to creating artificial northern white rhino eggs

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With only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, scientists are racing to find ways to save the species before it’s too late. They got closer to this goal by creating artificial rhinoceros eggs from stem cells.

Led by a team of researchers from Leiden University, a new study in Scientific reports points out that the team was able to collect and find new information about rhinoceros pluripotent stem cells. This data is an essential step in creating artificial rhino eggs to save the species from extinction.

The team is collaborating with Katsuhiko Hayashi, a professor at Kyushu University, who successfully created mouse eggs from skin cells. The conceived offspring are born healthy.

According to a report in Science Daily, iPS cells in a petri dish can grow into any cell in the body, including primordial germ cells, the type of cells researchers want to grow. iPS cells can either be in a state of naïve pluripotency or primed. In an old trial, scientists failed to convert stem cells to the naïve state. So they modified the cells by introducing a gene that prevents cell death, and then were able to convert naïve rhinoceros stem cells, needed to produce germ cells, which pass the genes down from generation to generation.

While this research is a promising step and gives researchers greater insight into rhino stem cells, these particular cells cannot be used in the future.

“The iPS cells we cultured contain persistent foreign genetic material, namely the reprogramming factors and the gene that prevents cell death,” said study author Vera Zywitza of the Stem Cell Platform pluripotent cells from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine of the Helmholtz Association. “This means that we cannot use them to make germ cells, because there is a risk that these will be pathologically altered.”

Still, this new information is crucial to helping scientists create artificial rhino eggs. The search comes at an important time, as there are only two female northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu, left in the world. In November 2021, Najin, a 32-year-old rhino, was removed from the BioRescue breeding program the two rhinos had been part of due to her age and health issues. The last male of the species, Sudan, died in March 2018.

“The importance of advanced assisted reproductive technologies (aART) may go beyond supporting conventional conservation approaches such as habitat protection and breeding, as they could in some cases be the last resort to save the extinction of critically endangered species,” note the authors of the study.

“With only two females remaining, the NWR symbolizes the ‘catastrophic decline’ of flora and fauna, and in particular large mammals, that is occurring globally due to human activities. Nevertheless, there is hope that biomedical technologies could be applied to save key species from extinction, or at least to produce cell banks for future resurrection when the technologies become available.

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