When Sudan, the last known male northern white rhino died the March before last, the subspecies was declared effectively extinct, the two remaining northern whites being female.
However, in a startling turn of events, the international scientific consortium Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) announced last Wednesday that it had successfully created viable embryos from eggs taken from Fatu, one of the two remaining females. Fatu and her mother Najin live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
I say startling, but for anyone versed in the ambition of BioRescue, the consortium’s project for the ‘rescue of the northern white rhino’, it’s a reasonably well-known step in a journey that began last June with its launch, and much earlier as part of wider Germany-based initiative that seeks to provide both precautionary and immediate measures for the preservation of biodiversity.
Over the course of the year, viability tests for BioRescue have seen the successful transfer of southern white embryos into the uteruses of southern white rhinos. Viability achieved, ten eggs collected in August from both Fatu and Najin were incubated at Avantea Laboratories, in Cermona, Italy. The seven that made it to maturity were subsequently injected in ‘a procedure called ICSI – Intra Cytoplasm Sperm Injection’, using sperm taken from two dead bulls, Suni and Saut. Of these, two were successfully developed as viable embryos.
There is, as everyone says, a long way to go. Created at Avantea Laboratories (Cermona, Italy), the embryos are currently cryopreserved, and await the selection of their surrogate southern white mothers – both Fatu and Najin being unable to carry the embryos to full term. More, as I understand it, the lack of diversity in its available gene pool means the chances of species bouncing back, whatever the success of the procedure, are greatly reduced.
However, however… we’re a million miles on from the day Sudan was put down after a long illness. As a result of procedure that five years ago was more science fiction than actual science, we may have a new generation of a species that was to all intents and purposes extinct. More, as the same project’s stem cell research develops, so we may – all ethical risks responsibly analysed – be able to leapfrog the specie’s lack of genetic diversity. Watch this startling space.
Credit lead image: Jan Stejskal. In-text image credit: Ami Vitale (Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya)