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Could saving a prehistoric rhino from extinction be the key to life amongst the stars?

Editorial Staff

The Sumatran Rhino is beyond cute but it's not fluffy so when it went functionally extinct in Malaysia in late 2015, hardly anyone noticed. Attempts to save it have been continuing for years with some successes and many failures. A small dedicated team refuses to give up. What, we wondered, could we come up with if we set our colleagues over at The Anti Money Laundering Network the task of the kind of identify-the-dots-that-don't-appear-to-join-up thinking they use in relation to financial crime that they use as the basis for leaps of faith, illogical jumps and a bit of over-the-horizon thinking. The results give some clues and where they led us was via the Sumatran Rhino to possibilities of producing humans to order to colonise other worlds. But first, let's start with the problems...

In 2013, researchers in the USA found (1)that it was possible, with targeted intervention, to successfully implant fertilised embryos of one species into the uterus of another species. It is a difficult and complex process that has a high potential for failure but it raises hope for those trying to save near-extinct mammals.

This raises the question of whether a host animal can be used as a surrogate for animals such as the Sumatran Rhino. The Sumartran Rhinoceros is much smaller than its African relative and, unlike the African Rhino, especially the Black Rhino, it is docile and displays affection for humans. It shares much in common with two other small rhinos, the Indian Rhino and the Javan Rhino. But it has a special importance: it is the closest living relative to the extinct woolly rhinoceros that lived in the frozen lands of the north (2). The Javan Rhino is even more endangered. Even so, there are less than 100 living specimens of the Sumatran Rhino and the species was declared extinct in Malaysia in 2015. An attempt to save the species earlier this century resulted in 40 being captured and transferred to conservation centres in the UK and the USA, as well as in Indonesia and Malaysia. The project was a disaster with most of the animals dying soon after capture.

Birth rates are low: females reach maturity at around seven years and give birth to a single calf every three to four years. But the animals maintain a solitary lifestyle and they seem to be especially poor at finding a mate. They have been affected by deforestation, which has separated them even more than they would be naturally and there has been extensive poaching, although there are no instances known since 2006. The Sumatran Rhino is the only small rhino that has two horns. They feed on fruit and leaves, twigs and bark.

The species has been listed by CITES since 1975 and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources on its red list.(3)

The Sumatran Rhino was first identified as endangered in 1030 (4). In 2001 and 2004, a captive breeding scheme at the Cincinnati Zoo produced two healthy calves. Unfortunately, the female parent in Cincinnati later died. According to IUCNNR, "The Sumatran rhinoceros once occurred from the foothills of the Himalayas in Bhutan and north-eastern India, through southern China (Yunnan), Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Viet Nam and the Malay Peninsula, and onto the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia (Foose et al., 1997; Grubb, 2005). The species' precise historical range is indeterminate, as early accounts failed to distinguish rhinos to specific level, due to partial sympatry with the other two Asian rhino species (Rhinoceros sondaicus and Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). The subspecies Dicerorhinus sumatrensis lasiotis formerly occurred in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar (Nowak, 1999). The subspecies is extinct in the three former countries, but there is a possibility that populations remain in northern Myanmar. "

A long-term project to capture, protect and breed the last examples in Malaysia has been run by The Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) but its funding expired in 2016 and its work to keep a pair of rhinos in Sabah, in Malaysia, is under threat. BORA rescued three rhinos from the wild: a female in each of 2011 and 2014 and a male in 2008. BORA says "both females have severe reproductive pathology, a result of lack of breeding, in term a result of no fertile males remaining in the wild. However, both produce oocytes, the cells that form eggs that are fertilised by sperm." BORA, with support from a range of experts both within and outside Malaysia, has been trying for several years to create a viable embryo in the lab from eggs and sperm from captive animals. So far, no viable egg has been created, much less an embryo.

But even if an embryo resulted, there is the question of how it will be developed into a foetus and carried to term. The female remaining in Sabah was found, when captured, to have large and engorged tumours in her uterus.

Meanwhile, although the species is officially extinct in Malaysia, which controls the northern part of Borneo Island, BORA still monitors the area for signs of any remaining rhino that may be in the wild and, almost certainly doomed if they are not rescued.

The big headache is that, even if embryos can be created in the laboratory, it is by no means certain whether the uteri of the remaining females are in a condition that is likely to accept and embed the embryo. While the tumours are not pathologically the same as endometrial (uterine) polyps, there is a similarity in that both damage the walls of the uterus. Endometrial polyps in humans are a cause of both chronic and acute pain and, if present over a sufficiently large area of the uterus, prevent a fertilised egg implanting, resulting in its discharge and loss. Both the polyps and the tumours in the Rhinos are benign (i.e. non-cancerous) but in extreme cases may become what is known as "pre-cancerous." (5) Polyps can be shrunk by medication or surgically removed.

It follows, then, that the most advanced medical techniques are required to try to maximise the chances of success if a viable embryo can be obtained. It is important to realise that it took many years before the first rhino was born in captivity and therefore it is likely that there will be many failures before success is gained. There have been a total of three born in captivity, two in the USA and one in Indonesia.

Given the shortage of good quality uteri, the news that a viable embryo can be successfully implanted into an alternative species is good news, even though the difficulties will be immense. First, of course, is the question of size: even a small-species baby rhino is a large lump. Therefore the host animal would need to be large. But it is also heavy, and so an animal that gives birth to large but relatively light young may be entirely unsuitable: for example, an obvious host would be a camel but a baby camel isn't very heavy and so internal stress on the host may result in loss of both host and foetus.

That raises the question that, if an embryo can be brought to term in a different species, can it be brought to term with an artificial host, that is to say an artificial uterus. There are developments in this field. In April 2016, an article in The Genetic Literacy Project reviewed the available literacy in this area.(6)

The main stumbling block to an artificial uterus said to be that there is insufficient knowledge about the placenta, that is the life support system for the foetus in the womb. However, the article says, there have been considerable advances in the development of artificial placenta. It also says "a true artificial uterus would not need an artificial placenta. The placenta is part of the conceptus package that develops from a fertilized egg. The interface between machine and biology would be in the tissues on the maternal side of the placenta, not the fetal side, and there’s a driver for advances in this area short of the goal of motherless birth: The need for alternatives to advanced lung support for keeping extremely premature infants alive. "

It appears, then, that the technology is on the horizon but we are moving towards it slowly. Whether it is quickly enough to save the Sumatran Rhino cannot be predicted. Of course, both eggs and sperm can be cryogenically preserved until the technology is available although that would have the obvious problems that there would be a non-viable gene pool and the animals would suffer the effects of inbreeding.

The research shows that a human foetus, with all available technology and an extraordinary degree of care, can be extracted and turned into a healthy child from as early as 22 weeks. A normal human pregnancy lasts 40 weeks although this figure is an average and a variance of plus or minus 20 days is accepted as normal. However, it is generally accepted that a full term pregnancy offers the best chance of a successful birth of a fully healthy child.

There is an international agreement that human embryos created in the lab must be disposed of at 14 days, before they begin to become viable for development into a foetus. That rule has been in force since 1995. Some want to extend that but religious, ethical, moral and general "eeewww" factors militate against that.

But there are other aspects to this: in December 2016, Science Magazine honoured a team from Cambridge University led by Marta Shahbazi. The study was named as "Breakthrough of the Year, 2016" and it was for "research that will enable scientists to grow and study embryos in the lab for almost two weeks." It was far more than that summary suggested. It is "A new technique that allows embryos to develop in vitro beyond the implantation stage (when the embryo would normally implant into the womb) has been developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge allowing them to analyse for the first time key stages of human embryo development up to 13 days after fertilisation. The technique could open up new avenues of research aimed at helping improve the chances of success of IVF. " (7)

This, then, suggests that there are more pieces of the jigsaw in place than at first seems, if the initial fertilisation of the rhino eggs can be achieved.

Taking all of those dots, even though they are disparate, the direction the work is taking can be extrapolated and, at some point in the future, there will be convergence. That convergence may be over the horizon, but it is clear that it will happen.

Meanwhile, BORA has tried to raise funds by public awareness campaigns and even crowd-funding but with little success. Perhaps in part this is because there are other, better known organisations trying to raise money for unspecified work, or because the amazingly cute Sumatran Rhino isn't quite as cuddly as the big cats that gather so much more attention.

BORA has a rubbish website, proving that they do not waste their money on glossy high profile campaigns and expensive PR. They have so far been dependent on a handful of people to get the message out although a Malaysian produced Discovery Channel documentary will have reached a wider audience and, if it gains global release, a far greater exposure for the plight of the animal.

John Payne, BORA's executive director, told the Mongabay blog that raising funding to save a species that is already functionally extinct in the wild and proving difficult to save in captivity is a massive problem. "Donors want to be assured that the animal will not go extinct on them in the next few years. It's much safer to put money into a threatened species than it is to put money into a species that is on the edge of extinction."

But here's the thing. If our incredibly naïve dotty analysis is valid, and we lay no claim to expertise, then finding a solution to the problem of conserving the Sumatran Rhino might, just might, flow back into benefits for humans. Think for a moment: Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars. Some plan even longer trips. If the technology exists for generating humans in far away places, then colonisation can be speeded up and the physiological risks of sending humans on ultra-long journeys in space can be reduced or, even, overcome.

Bizarrely, saving a prehistoric creature from extinction may prove to be the key to the future of mankind on other worlds.

If you want to help BORA, please visit their website at http://www.borneorhinoalliance....


(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/p.... Cross-Species Withdrawal of MCL1 Facilitates Postpartum Uterine Involution in Both the Mouse and Baboon Chandrashekara Kyathanahalli et al.

(2) http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_d...

(3) http://www.iucnredlist.org/det...

(4) http://www.borneorhinoalliance...

(5) http://www.mayoclinic.org/dise...

(6) https://www.geneticliteracypro...

(7) https://www.cam.ac.uk/people/m...