FunNature & AnimalA robot could help the northern white rhino resurface

A robot could help the northern white rhino resurface

A little over a year ago we heard the news of the death of the last male northern white rhinoceros, Sudan, with two females as the only population of this species, and thus leaving it on the brink of extinction.

But, fortunately, science can side with nature to save this species, almost extinct because of the human hand (they did not disappear by evolution, but because they were not immune to bullets).

Artificial fertilization from frozen Sudan sperm and the creation of laboratory-made rhino embryos is the last ray of hope for Ceratotherium simum cottoni , the scientific name for the northern white rhino.

This is the first time that such a sophisticated technique has been tried on rhinos. How to carry it out?

Now, the University of California and the San Diego Zoo have developed an innovative method that could help perform in vitro fertilization: it is a flexible snake-shaped robot, which would make it easier for zoologists to perform artificial insemination and transfer of embryos in rhinos.

This idea is still in its infancy, as researchers are still seeking funding to design and build the robot.

“It would consist of a long, thin catheter that can be directed through the cervix of a female rhinoceros to deliver a sperm sample to the uterus,” says Michael Yip, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, San Diego, in a press release.

In essence, it may sound straightforward, but navigating the reproductive anatomy of a female rhino is incredibly complicated. The rhinoceros cervix is very large and devious. It makes a series of turns, “like curves on a steep mountain road,” a simile used by Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive sciences at Henshaw at the San Diego Global Zoo.

Image: David Baillot / UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

To make their way through this maze, Durrant’s team would use a stainless steel catheter, 5 millimeters in diameter, with a 45-degree bend. Guiding this technology through the cervix of the rhino by hand would be difficult and would require a lot of delicacy, so as not to damage the cervical tissue.

This technique has worked so far for artificial insemination. It is normally done when a rhino’s estrogen levels are high, causing the cervical tissue to soften and open.

But the process becomes even more complicated when researchers have to do an embryo transfer. This procedure is usually done later in the rhino’s cycle, when its progesterone levels are high. In this phase of the cycle, instead, your cervix stiffens and closes. Therefore, they should be flexible, high-precision robotic catheters.

But even if such engineering is built, neither female northern white rhino can carry a pregnancy to term , so the team will use the robotic catheter on a related subspecies: the southern white rhino ( Ceratotherium simum simum ).

The plan is to first obtain northern white rhinoceros eggs using stem cells from previously collected frozen cell lines, then fertilize them and generate northern white rhino embryos. The researchers would then use the robot to implant the resulting embryos.

The ultimate goal is to produce a self-sustaining herd of northern white rhinos , first in captivity and then back in the wild.

“This is still many years away , but we have excellent partners both here and around the world who work with us and help us steadily move in that direction,” acknowledges Barbara Durrant.

The robot devised by the researchers can meander through extremely complicated channels , such as the rhino’s cervix, easier and smoother than conventional tools. To flex back and forth, it uses a series of tendons that run along its length. Pulling a tendon on the left side of the device would cause it to rotate to the left, and the same to the right.

In addition, the robot would be equipped with a small camera head at the tip to help the operator see where it is going. It will also have a channel to deliver its cargo, the semen or an embryo, to the uterus.

“I hope that technologies like this can be used both to repopulate endangered species and to counter some of the unfortunate human poaching that has been happening around the world,” concludes Michael Yip, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California in San Diego, who has been working on initial versions of steerable robotic catheters in his lab.

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