Jul 10th 2018

Could IVF Science Save Endangered Species?

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When Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino, died on March 19 at the age of 45, so did any hopes of his species continuing.

However, scientists have saved his genetic material with the prospect of using in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create a viable embryo with eggs from the two remaining Northern white rhinos, his daughter and granddaughter, The New York Times said. This wild idea could actually prevent animals going extinct.

Can Scientists Revive the Northern White Rhino?

Today, millions of human babies are conceived with IVF science, but this procedure wasn’t always so common. The first human baby who was conceived by IVF, Louise Joy Brown, turns 40 this July, according to History.com.

Veterinarians have also been using IVF science for animals for the same period of time. According to Tufts, IVF is commonly used in the cattle industry to breed robust herds by creating embryos using eggs from the best dairy-producing cows. In fact, bovine IVF is now used at a scale comparable to human IVF (millions of newborns), according to the journal Reproduction.

So, in theory, it should be possible to combine Sudan’s sperm with an egg from a living female Northern white rhino, creating an embryo that would save the subspecies by creating a new generation.

It’s Complicated

There are several critical complications that would prevent this plan from working. First, the eggs would need to be extracted because the female rhinos are too old to reproduce naturally. Scientists would have to use another subspecies, the Southern white rhino, as a surrogate mother, said The New York Times.

While cows are pregnant for nine months, the white rhino’s gestation period is longer — approximately 16 months, according to Save The Rhino — and they have such a delicate ability to conceive that it could be quite difficult to successfully impregnate a white rhino.

The only available eggs would come from Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter. Even in the best-case scenario, there would be a bottleneck of genetics since the sperm and egg donors are closely related to each other.

Better Late Than Never?

While IVF science offers a last-ditch option for saving the Northern white rhino, it’s probably too late. We’re in a race against time, because IVF techniques for rhinos are still being developed and the last two Northern white rhinos are aging.

“By the time you’re down to a handful of individuals, who have become famous worldwide for being quite so rare, it’s really far too late,” said Cathy Dean, CEO of Save the Rhino, in a statement.

The Future of IVF and Endangered Species

It seems clear that IVF is not an ideal solution for saving the white rhinos. Nevertheless, exploring the idea of using IVF as a tool to save the subspecies from extinction could help us figure out how to save other animals going extinct.

Technology is a key component of modern environmental conservation efforts. While fertility techniques continue to improve for humans and agriculture, this knowledge could also help us save animals like the white rhino.

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