FunNature & AnimalHybrid embryos of endangered white rhinos created

Hybrid embryos of endangered white rhinos created

It is the first time that hybrid embryos of this species have been created and this finding offers a small glimmer of hope to save the northern white rhinoceros ( Ceratotherium simum ). It is the last hope.


Rhinoceros embryos manufactured in the laboratory


A team of Italian and German scientists has obtained hybrid embryos of northern white rhinos ( Ceratotherium simum cottoni ) and southern white rhinos ( Ceratotherium simum simum ) prepared to be implanted in a uterus of a female of this animal. This is the first attempt at artificial fertilization in rhinos.


The scientists injected preserved sperm from a male northern white rhino into the eggs of a female southern white rhino, a closely related subspecies. They did it through an intracytoplasmic injection , a technique that consists of introducing the sperm into the egg. The embryos were incubated until the cells began to differentiate, a stage at which they can be implanted into a surrogate mother, the researchers report in the journal Nature Communications.


This achievement represents “one of the really crucial steps” in getting new rhinos to hatch, says Jan Stejskal, coordinator of northern white rhino conservation efforts at Safari Park Dvůr Králové in the Czech Republic and co-author of the study.

Experts hope to implant similar embryos into female southern white rhinos or hybrid white rhinos from north to south.

If it works, it could provide hope of bringing a species back to the brink of extinction. Sudan, the last white male of the white rhino, died this March. Only two females survive in Kenya (Najin and Fatu) and both are infertile. By comparison, there are more than 20,000 southern white rhinos left.

Hybrid rhinos, if they do manage to hatch, could serve two purposes. They could be more compatible surrogate mothers for a possible northern white rhino embryo as they will share more DNA with the babies. And theoretically, the hybrids could be selectively bred with northern rhino genes, creating a pure northern white rhino, a process that would take many generations and span several decades, but which seems plausible.

In a potentially faster way to give birth to a northern pure white rhino, the researchers
plan to harvest eggs from the two remaining females and combine them with preserved northern white rhino sperm. If successful, within the next three years, we could witness the birth of a small northern white rhino.

Stem cell technology has also played an important role , as the team was able to derive pluripotent stem cells, which can develop into any cell in the body, including eggs and sperm, from two pure southern white embryos. Scientists claim there are 12 frozen northern white rhino cell lines, six of which are genetically distinct, which is important to avoid inbreeding. If researchers can turn these skin cells first into pluripotent stem cells and then into eggs and sperm, it would be another way to create a pure northern white rhino embryo.

For now, other scientists caution against over-optimism. “Saving a species or a subspecies requires much more than science,” says Terri Roth, a physiologist of animal reproduction at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Africa is in the midst of a rhino poaching epidemic. Thomas Hildebrandt, leader of the work, agrees. “The northern white rhino was not extinct because it failed in evolution; it failed because it is not bulletproof, ” he says.


Referencia: Thomas B. Hildebrandt et al. Embryos and embryonic stem cells from the white rhinoceros, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04959-2 ,


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