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Biotech To Save Entire Species
Conservation of endangered species just got a sudden boost thanks to biotechnologies. The scientists and conservationists consortium ‘BioRescues' has recently achieved the world’s first pregnancy of a rhinoceros after an embryo transfer.
This completely changes the landscape of species preservation, especially for those with low reproduction rates, common for large animals like rhinoceros. BioRescue, in collaboration with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, has developed over decades of research a way to transfer rhinoceros embryos. This breakthrough was achieved with a female southern white rhino. While not uncommon for farm animals like horses or cows, the technique has only been recently mastered for rhinos.
The main target is, however, the northern white rhinos, of which only 2 female individuals are left alive today. Normally, this would have meant the inevitable extinction of the species, even if these last 2 specimens were guarded night and day in their living habitat in Kenya.
But BioRescue has stored in liquid nitrogen cells of 12 different northern white rhinos and produced and preserved 30 northern white rhino embryos. Following the success of embryo transfer for the southern white rhino, these 30 northern embryos can be transferred to southern surrogate mothers in zoos.
Unfortunate Delay & Promising Outlook
The surrogate mother used as a proof-of-concept became successfully pregnant with the transferred embryos, carrying it until 70 days. Unfortunately, an outbreak of clostridia bacteria spores resulting from heavy rains in the rhino pen led to the death of the pregnant rhino. But post-mortem examination has shown the pregnancy had a 95% chance of arriving to term and that the unfortunate death was not related to the embryo transfer.
This means BioRescue can move on with helping a new northern white rhino baby to be born at least 1 year ahead of schedule. This is great news also because the 2 surviving members of the species are still living in the wild and will be able to teach the younger ones.
“We want the offspring to live together with Najin and Fatu for years to learn the social behavior of its kind.”
So, while the death of the surrogate mother was a tragedy, it should not impede the urgent efforts to save the northern white rhinos from extinction.
Expanding Conservation Efforts
Progresses in cellular biotechnology have made building biobanks for endangered species a key part of conservation efforts. As we saw, it can be used to save populations from extinction, like in the case of the white rhinos. But it can also be used to store genetic diversity, reducing the risks of inbreeding and vulnerability to diseases in the future population.
Depending on the situation, it can be as simple as a large biobanks of frozen sperm. Or more complex biobanks of eggs, embryos, and other tissues. The more complex the sample, the more complex the process will be as well, with frozen sperm requiring only artificial insemination, while eggs and embryos requiring an understanding of efficient IVF and embryo transfer protocol for each species in particular.
Fertility treatment can also be a key part of making the existing population multiply at a quicker pace. Unfortunately, “for instance, reproductive biology is well understood for only about 0.25% of the world's 40 000 vertebrate species”. So, efforts to improve our understanding, especially of high-priority endangered species, should be made.
(you can read a detailed synthesis of these technologies and their limits in the article “Biotechnologies for wildlife fertility preservation”).
Scientists are also considering going even further. What if they could bring extinct species back to life?
BioRescue is looking at doing just that with the Sumatra rhinoceros, a species of which the last specimen died in 2019. In 2022, the Max Delbrück Center in Berlin has successfully grown stem cells and mini-brains from his skin cells.
The goal of this research is to turn the samples into true stem cells. They could then be turned into sperm and egg cells and used for in-vitro fertilization. These lab-grown embryos could then be grown with surrogate rhino mothers from other species, and the Sumatra rhino could be “resurrected.”
This approach could be expanded even further than recently exciting species.
Mankind has been responsible for the extinction of plenty of animal species, starting from prehistory. Overhunting is considered one if not the determining factor in the extinction of species like the woolly mammoth. These extinctions have durably damaged ecosystems like the tundra or Australia, with no species yet able to fill up the empty ecological niche left by the overhunted ones.
The company Colossal is looking to make this concept of “de-extinction” a reality, thanks to $225M in funding. Using DNA from frozen mammoth bodies and CRISPR gene editing technology, they hope to modify the Asian elephant genome into something close to the historical mammoths. Considering the company's scientific push is led by George Church, who was a pioneer in genomic sequencing methods, chip-based DNA libraries, genome editing, and stem cell engineering, this may not be as far-fetched as it looks.
So while a Jurassic Park scenario is likely never possible (as we do not have dinosaur DNA available, nor a close relative that we could engineer like with mammoths), a Mammoth Park might be something we will see in the next few decades. And other species, too, with Colossal looking at de-extinction projects for the Tasmanian tigers and the dodo birds.
Investing In Conservation
1. Rhino Bond
Also called the Wildlife Conservation Bond (WCB), this five-year, $150 million sustainable development bond is backed by the World Bank’s International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). This bond is looking at boosting conservation efforts for the black rhinoceros in South Africa.
The returns on these bonds are tied to the success or failure of conservation efforts. If the rhino population stays flat or decreases, the investors will only receive back the principal at maturity. If it succeeds (the rhino population is growing by more than 4%), the interest will be paid by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
The backing of the World Bank and the GEF, control by international agencies, and the issuance of the bond by Credit Suisse and Citi make the “rhino bond” a rather unique financial product. One where investors can look for safe (and moderate) returns, knowing that they also contribute to saving an endangered species. We could imagine a similar method for the white rhino.
Other types of “green bonds” focused on ecosystems and conservation also exist, with a good selection of them listed by the Green Finance Institute.
More speculatively, we could also imagine in the future a “for profit ownership” of endangered species or individual animals, where revenues from tourism and wildlife funds could be turned into a stable, bond-like income.
Some companies are moving in this direction. For example, the Nature Investment Group (NIP), investing in sustainable land-based economic models in Africa to improve the preservation of land and wildlife in lands nearby and invest in for-profit ventures in tourism, forestry, agriculture, carbon capture and other projects merging investment and nature conservation.
The company is producing on-demand organisms for specific applications. It has diversified its applications widely with many research programs and partnerships:
- mRNA vaccine production and nucleic acid medicine
- Food proteins
- Biological fertilizer production in partnership with Bayer
- Programmable microbes for gut diseases
- Microplastics bioremediation
- Biosecurity and pathogens detection
- Recycling waste and contaminants
It generates money by being first paid upfront for the development process and then through royalties on the finished product.
The company has been at the forefront of innovation in engineering new organisms and developing techniques for new animals and plants. This puts it in a strong position to potentially contribute to conservation efforts and develop new methods for multiplying endangered species not only of large animals but also plants and even microbiomes.
Zoetis is a former subsidiary of Pfizer that has been spun off and focused on animal health. This gives them deep insight into the fertility and breeding of multiple animal species, especially farm animals.
The insights from livestock fertility research from companies like Zoetis are now used by conservationists to breed artificially wild animals like rhinos.
Elanco is a veterinary products company that covers a wide range of animals, including pets, livestock, and fish. As for Zoetis, this makes Elanco a good partner for conservation efforts, with products that can be adapted for endangered species.
Other Biotech Companies
There are other relevant companies active in stem cell and/or gene editing technology, which, as we saw, might soon be used to revive dead species or provide extra genetic diversity to small populations of endangered species. This includes, for example, Lineage Cell Therapeutics (LCTX), Editas Medicine (EDIT), or CRISPR Therapeutics (CRSP).