Signals Blog

Peanut butter and jelly. Macaroni and cheese. Fish and chips.

Some things are just better paired together.

But there’s one combination you’d never expect to see: surrogate rhinos and stem cells.  

 With just three northern white rhinos left on earth, it looks like this unlikely duo may soon become a reality.

An international team of scientists has already created induced pluripotent stem cells from rhino skin cells. This means the cells can be reprogramed into any type of tissue – such as egg and sperm tissue. In October, they will use advanced reproductive techniques, which include stem cell technology, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and removing the last eggs from the two remaining female rhinos, to create embryos that can be implanted into surrogate southern white rhino mothers.

It’s a bold, last-ditch effort to save the northern white rhino – and one that has many conservation experts scratching their heads. (Elsewhere, researchers think domesticated cats can act as surrogates for saving endangered tigers and other big cats.)

Some fear that this hi-tech approach could hinder conservation efforts by detracting from larger issues at hand, such as addressing the root causes of extinction and providing better protection). Dismissing the project, Michael Knight, the chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino Specialist Group, told Nature it was purely “Star Trek-type science.”

But the project scientists are hopeful. “Unless we act now, the northern white rhino will go extinct,” one of the project’s leading scientists, reproductive biologist Thomas Hildebrandt, recently told The Guardian. “And don’t forget that, once we have developed IVF and stem cell technologies to save it, we will then be able to use them to rescue other threatened species.”

So far, no one has yet to turn the reprogramed stem cells from rhino skin (currently in frozen storage) into viable sperm and egg cells, but Hildebrandt believes in trial and error until resolution. “I am sure we will learn how to do this in the end,” he says. The process will require culturing rhino stem cells with reproductive tissues of other animals, such as mice.

Imagine if something as small as a mouse ends up saving the mighty rhino?

Nature’s infographic below describes the process in more detail (and includes a darling little drawing of a rhino embryo).

Keep watching this space to see if stem cells press the species-saving rewind button on animal extinction.

nature_news_northern-white-rhino_05.05.2016-NEW3-WEB2Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at) We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

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Alanna Evans

Alanna Evans

Alanna Evans is a multimedia journalist and communications professional, with experience producing health and features stories for the leading women’s magazines in England and Canada.