Nairobi, Sept 12 – Efforts to bring the northern white rhinoceros from the brink of extinction have moved a step further with the successful creation of embryos of the subspecies by scientists in Italy.

The in-vitro creation of northern white rhino embryos was achieved at Avantea Laboratories in Cremona, where Cesare Galli and his team matured and fertilised eggs collected on August 22 from Najin and Fatu, the two females living at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, with sperm from males Suni and Saut.

“We brought ten oocytes back from Kenya, five from each female. After incubation seven matured and were suitable for fertilisation (four from Fatu and three from Najin),” said Galli. “Fatu’s eggs were injected with Suni’s sperm while Najin’s eggs were injected with Saut’s sperm using a procedure called ICSI (Intra Cytoplasm Sperm Injection). Saut’s semen was of really poor quality and we had to thaw additional samples to find viable sperms for ICSI.

“After 10 days of incubation, two of Fatu’s eggs developed into viable embryos that were cryopreserved for future transfer. Najin’s eggs did not make it to a viable embryo despite the fact that one egg initiated segmentation.”

The procedure was made possible by a previous milestone achieved at Ol Pejeta three weeks ago. Scientists were able to collect oocytes (immature eggs) from both Najin and Fatu for the first time ever. The successful egg collection was a joint effort by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). The eggs were then airlifted to the Avantea Lab in Cremona.

“Today we achieved an important milestone on a rocky road which allows us to plan the future steps in the rescue programme of the northern white rhino,” said Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz-IZW.

The entire process is part of the “BioRescue” research project. Its goal is to significantly advance assisted reproduction techniques (ART) and stem cell associated techniques (SCAT) complemented with a comprehensive ethical assessment for the benefit of the northern white rhinoceros.

The consortium is partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and comprises of internationally renowned institutions from Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Kenya, Japan and the United States. BioRescue aims to prevent the extinction of the northern white rhino.

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