Scientists are working on a way to create artificial egg cells from stem cells, in a study that intends to save the Northern White Rhino from extinction.
The situation for the Northern White Rhino is quite dire. Right now, there are only two left in the world, named Fatu and Najin, both females. Obviously, the Northern White Rhino is close to being completely extinct, without a way to naturally reproduce.
To stop the extinction of the entire species, a consortium of scientists called BioRescue is attempting to make artificial eggs from the stem cells of Northern White Rhinos, which they’ve sourced from skin cells. The consortium is also developing advanced reproduction techniques through an adjacent project.
Now, with some new research, BioRescue appears to be a step closer to creating artificial eggs, with the team from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC), along with research partners from Munich, the Netherlands and Japan working on in-depth studies on pluripotent (iPS) rhino stem cells, or master stem cells.
“Our paper sheds new light on pluripotency – the ability of stem cells to differentiate into all cells of the body,” says lead author Dr. Vera Zywitza of the Pluripotent Stem Cells Platform at the MDC.
iPS cells can potentially turn into any cell of the body, under the right conditions, when experimented with in a petri dish. The paper explores how the iPS cells extracted from the Northern White Rhinos have been kept alive, without the cells dying. This has been achieved by introducing a gene that prevents cell death (don’t read into this as invincible rhinos, we’re not there yet).
“The successful conversion to a naïve-like state of pluripotency is a promising starting point for generating germline cells,” added Zywita.
“It therefore represents an important milestone on the road to artificially generated rhino oocytes [immature eggs].”
While all of this sounds great, there’s a tonne of work to be done. Not only does the team need to create primordial germ cells from the iPS cells that they’ve extracted so that muscle growth and development can begin, but they also need to replicate the in-womb conditions, which would require ovarian tissue. The team is currently working on this, having last year successfully cultivated ovarian tissue from mouse stem cells.
Maybe one day we can bring the Northern White Rhino back in force with artificial eggs and maybe eventually we can keep other species alive with stem cell research like this. You can read the research paper here.