Saving Northern White Rhinos With a Robot

There are only two northern white rhinos left in the world. Unfortunately, they are both female and while scientists do have some preserved sperm samples, neither of the rhinos can reproduce. Still, scientists are desperately trying to figure out a way to save the species from extinction.

The plan is to use a related subspecies, the southern white rhino as a surrogate. Scientists would then genetically engineer northern white rhino eggs using stem cells from previously collected frozen cell lines, then fertilize them to generate embryos.

After they do all that, they still have to get the embryos safely inside the surrogate. The rhino’s cervix is quite large with many twists and turns. Using conventional tools could cause damage to both the animal and the embryo. This is where a robot comes in.

Credit: UC San Diego

Snake-Like Robot Plants Embryo in Rhino

The San Diego Zoo and UC San Diego are teaming up to create a robot that will help perform embryo transfers to save the endangered rhinos. The flexible snakelike robot is designed to navigate the complex cervix and implant the embryo.

To flex back and forth, it uses a series of tendons. Pulling on a tendon on the left side of the device would make it turn left. Pulling on a tendon on another side would make it turn another direction. This robot causes less discomfort and risk to the animal than conventional tools.

“What then you can do is secure more and more tendons along the length of the device. You can coordinate all those tendon motions like you’re marionetting a puppet so that you can get S shapes, and you can get torques and twists out of the system,” said Michael Yip, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego.

Robot Northern White Rhino Embryo - YellRobot
Credit: David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

Tiny Camera Helps Operator Navigate Robot Through Cervix

A tiny camera on the tip will help the navigator control the robot as it goes through the rhino cervix. A delivery system on the device will then unload the embryo when it reaches its destination. The robot could also be used to deliver sperm to artificially inseminate other rhino species.

“It’s essentially a long, thin catheter that can be steered through a rhino’s cervix to deliver a specimen to the uterus. You can basically marionette the device to curve into any shape you want,” said Yip.

Robot Catheter Was Initially Developed With Humans In Mind

Yip’s original plan was to develop the flexible robot for use in humans. Barbara Durrant, who serves as director of reproductive sciences at San Diego Zoo Global, learned of the technology and saw a perfect opportunity for collaboration. She visited Yip’s lab and realized the tech could be quite useful in the zoo.

There is currently a crowdfunding campaign going on to help make the robot become a reality.

“The ultimate goal is to produce a self-sustaining herd of northern white rhinos, first in captivity and then back into the wild. That’s still many, many years down the line, but we have excellent collaborators both here and around the world that are working with us and helping us move steadily in that direction,” said Durrant.

Source: University of California

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