Reversing Extinction for the Northern White Rhino | Freethink


– [Man] Good girl. – [Barbara] Okay, going in with the probe. – [Man] Okay. – [Narrator] This is
Doctor Barbara Durrant. She’s working to save a species, and holy crap she’s sticking
her arm all the way in. Wow, let’s go back to the
beginning and get some context. (tape rewinding) This is a zoo, a frozen zoo. – [Barbara] So, I can
pull some of these out. This is a South African Cheetah, this is a Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, this is a Sumatran Tiger,
also an endangered species. So, every species in
here has its own unique and interesting story. – [Narrator] Inside these
tanks of liquid nitrogen, the genetic legacy of thousands
of species is preserved. Nope, not dinosaurs! That’s Jurassic Park. But yeah, same idea I guess. Anyway, this is the Northern White Rhino. It’s not a dinosaur, but it is extinct. Functionally extinct. There are two surviving female specimens, but neither can reproduce. This extinction is the
result of human activity, mainly poaching. However, because of the work being done here at the frozen zoo, and with the cooperation of
some Southern White Rhinos, this may not be the end of the line for the Northern White Rhino. In fact, with a little luck, this could be a very short extinction. – [Man] Come on, Wallace! Come on Amani! Good, hustle. – [Barbara] This is just
the most wonderful job anybody could ever have. – [Man] Good girl. – [Barbara] I think the
interaction with the animals is my favorite part. I also love being in the lab
and doing the basic science. Uh oh. (laughs) I’ll have to look for that later. Okay, so, now. – [Narrator] This is
Doctor Barbara Durrant. She’s the director of San Diego Zoo’s Reproductive Sciences Department, and entrusted with the
care of their frozen zoo. – [Barbara] It’s a unique collection of cell lines, sperm, embryos, DNA from over 10,000 individual animals. The reason that we have a frozen zoo is because species are
going extinct every day. Without this reservoir, we don’t have hope of bringing them back. – [Narrator] Now, Doctor
Durrant and her team are working with the genetic data in their frozen zoo to do something that has
never been done before: bring a species back from extinction. – [Barbara] Okay, this is
Northern White Rhino right here. I would say the project to bring the Northern White Rhinos back is the most ambitious project
that we’ve undertaken. This species was poached to extinction. We would call the Northern
White Rhino functionally extinct because there are two living
Northern White Rhinos. They’re both females. But they have been determined to be incapable of reproduction. And there’s no male, so that makes it a little
bit more difficult. However, we can actually
bring the Northern White Rhino back from extinction with the living cells that we have in the frozen zoo. – [Narrator] Much of the
samples in the frozen zoo are tissues like skin cells. Recent advances in technology
have allowed researchers to convert skin cells into stem cells, and stem cells can transform
into any other kind of cell. – [Barbara] Our aim is for those cells to become sperm and eggs,
so those are the next steps. This means that they can
create fertilized eggs… No, not those kinds of eggs. Rhinos are mammals, please stop putting Jurassic
Park references in here. Once they can reliably create fertilized Northern White Rhino embryos, they can be gestated
in these lovely ladies, a group of Southern White Rhinos that are helping to bring the
Northern White Rhinos back. (metal gate creaking) – [Man] Good job. – [Barbara] When we first started doing the reproductive
research with the rhinos, we needed them to be calm and comfortable so that we could do our
research noninvasively. And that means we’re not
anesthetizing these animals, we’re training them. – [Man] All right, let’s go! – [Barbara] This is a voluntary
process for these animals. If they’re not comfortable
on any given day, we stop, we open the
gate, and we release them. – [Man] Not having it? All right. Well, unfortunately, I don’t think she’s up for it right now. I was actually personally impressed with how quickly they
did take to training. Over the years of the program, we’ve done between 700-800 ultrasounds. We’ve collected quite a bit of data and that’s all because
they’re participating in those sessions. – [Barbara] The process that we use to visualize the reproductive tract is called trans-rectal ultrasound. Okay, going in with the probe. So, we are actually going into the rectum because the rectum is above
the reproductive tract. See, ovary’s right down in there, but I don’t have good view of it yet. The reason that we’re
doing all this training and the ultrasound is so that we can understand
the reproductive cycle in very minute detail. There it is. If we know when the animal
is going to ovulate, we can time an artificial
insemination for maximum success. The ultimate goal for
these Southern White Rhinos is to be recipients for
Northern White Rhino embryos that we would produce in the lab. So, all of this background
work has to be done for the end goal to be
achieved of having females that are capable of carrying
a Northern White embryo to term. – [Narrator] Right now
these Southern White Rhinos are being evaluated to
make sure they’re ready to carry the first new generation
of Northern White Rhinos. There’s enough genetic diversity
preserved in the frozen zoo to create a self-sustaining population of Northern White Rhinos in the wild. – [Barbara] This is a
very long term project. We’re talking decades. I feel a very strong personal
obligation to do this work. Because humans have driven
so many of these species to the brink of extinction, we have the responsibility
to bring these animals back. The hardest part of this project is developing the technologies. No other species has been brought back from the brink of extinction with these kinds of cellular techniques. If this project succeeds, we will have shown the
pathways to make this possible for a number of other species, and that would be a tremendous achievement for the human race. But it is bittersweet to think that I won’t see
the end of this project. Maybe I will! Might live to be 100. – [Man] I mean, (laughs) I hope we all do! – [Barbara] I might be alive, but I might not be aware of it. (laughs) (uplifting music) If you enjoyed this video, please like and subscribe to our channel. Because we’d love to keep sharing these sorts of stories with you.

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