Back From the Brink: Should Science Halt Extinction?

May 10, 2016

As we grapple daily with the consequences of climate change and exploding human populations, other animal species we share the planet with are about to go extinct. But, as reported last week in the journal Nature, science may be able to step in and halt the inexorable decline of critically endangered animals.

Right now, there are only three northern white rhinos left on the planet, residing in a guarded Kenyan game-park and unable to naturally breed. Of the two females remaining, both have physical conditions that would prevent them from carrying a pregnancy to term. But now zoological experts in stem cell and reproductive biology want to take frozen rhino egg and sperm cells, collected from ten other rhinos before their demise, and attempt to repopulate the northern rhino’s native habitat.

The  idea would be to culture the northern rhino gametes using in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create embryos to be implanted inside female southern white rhinos, whose population numbers around 20,000.

“It’s really a strategic road map — one which has a lot of obstacles,” says reproductive biologist Thomas Hildebrandt, who leads a team working on this issue from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.

But that’s just the easy part. With a limited number female northern white rhinos from which to take cells, there wouldn’t be enough genetic diversity over time to support a population able to grow in the wild. The harder bit will be the attempt to take rhino stem cells, induce them to turn into sperm and egg cells, thus creating new genetic diversity.

The idea is not without its critics.  “This says we can let species go to the very brink of extinction and modern technology can bring them back.” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “There is a very substantial moral hazard in that.”

And why should we pour so much money into bringing one species back where there are so many more we could spend that money on protecting? One answer is because we can (possibly). This is a great example of what science may be able to achieve through audacious ideas and dogged experimentation. It’s one thing to create stem cell mice. It’s a whole different level of achievement to essentially manufacture a 2000 kg behemoth.

But the more we push the boundaries and possibilities of what can be achieved through science and technology, the more we need to ask ethical questions; how should we spend our scientific resources, what might be the benefit to the greater good, and what could be the long-term consequences?

However this proceeds, this is exciting science. Go here to read the full article which includes an excellent infographic on the proposed process of rhino creation.


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