In Brief

Bid to resurrect extinct Sumatran rhino using stem cells

Scientists aim to create embryos to implant into a ‘closely related species’

A recently extinct species of Malaysian rhino is to be brought back to life using experimental stem cell technology, scientists hope.

The Southeast Asian country’s last Sumatran rhinoceros, Iman, died at the age of 25 in a nature reserve last November, following years of failed breeding attempts. But researchers are “pinning their hopes” on cells taken from skin, eggs and tissue samples from Iman and two other dead rhinos in a bid to resurrect the species, Reuters reports.

The team “plan to use cells from the dead rhinos to produce sperm and eggs that will yield test-tube babies to be implanted into a living animal or a closely related species, such as the horse”, says the news agency.

Lead scientist Muhammad Lokman Md Isa, a molecular biologist at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, insists he is “very confident” that the experimental method could work.

“If everything is functioning, works well and everybody supports us, it’s not impossible,” he said.

Indonesian scientist Arief Boediono, who is helping the Malaysian researchers, added: “It may take five, ten, 20 years, I don’t know. But there has already been some success involving lab rats in Japan, so that means there is a chance.”

The Sumatran rhinoceros, the smallest rhino species in the world, has been extinct in the wild in Malaysia since 2015. The species once roamed across Asia, but after decades of hunting and forest clearance, only 80 are left, in Indonesia.

Experts in Malaysia tried without succdess to encourage captive breeding between Iman and the country’s last remaining male rhino, Tam, who passed away six months before Iman died from massive blood loss caused by uterine tumours.

“He was the equivalent of a 70-year-old man, so of course you don’t expect the sperm to be all that good,” said John Payne of the Borneo Rhino Alliance.

And “cross-border rivalry” with Indonesia has reportedly ruled out hopes of using sperm and egg reserves from the remaining Sumatran rhino population there, although the authorities in Jakarta insists talks continue on ways to work with conservationists in the neighbouring nation.

News of the stem cell project comes almost exactly a year after the first southern white rhinoceros born via artificial insemination in North America came into the world. A birthday celebration for the male rhino, Edward, was held at San Diego Zoo Safari Park and “guests included his mother Victoria, eight-month-old female calf Future, and her mother Amani”, reports Times of San Diego.

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