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Struggling to save black rhinos, scientists are crowdfunding to preserve their DNA

Ntombi, a black rhino, wanders in a preserve in the northern-most province of South Africa. She is expected to be the first of her species to have her genome sequenced. (Photo courtesy of R. Prehn)
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Ntombi is a six-year-old black rhino from South Africa, one of around 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild. She's also the starting point for what a team of scientists hope to be a "bio-bank" of genetic information that could be used to save the species.

Ntombi would be the first black rhino to have its genome sequenced, part of a larger trend of conservationists gathering the genetic data of threatened animals to protect them from extinction. The research will be used to strengthen understanding of the species and how it evolved, but it will also lay the bedrock for lab-grown horns that could be used to flood black markets and drive down demand for poaching.

Researchers in the project also hope that a genetic library could, one day, be used to engineer DNA and bring back species that have been lost.

[The white rhino: A species on the brink of extinction with just one male left in the world]

The project was inspired by a number of researchers in different institutions, collectively known as the Black Rhino Genome Project. To boost their efforts, the team set up a crowdfunding campaign, which met its goal of $16,500 this week to start the project.

"You can hardly do anything without knowing the genome," said Chuck Murry, a member of the team and a professor at the University of Washington.

Murry is primarily a bio-engineer specializing in stem cell research, but he got interested in working with conservation science during a trip to South Africa where he got to see the rhinos in the wild.

Black rhino populations have been devastated over the past decade due to illegal poaching for their horns, which are seen as a status symbol in southern Africa and are used for medicinal purposes. Between 1970 and 1992, 96 percent of the population was killed, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Although conservation efforts helped to boost the species' numbers ever since, poaching has remained a major threat to the animal, with more than 300 killed in 2010 alone.

[Watch: A wild rhino wreaks havoc in a town in Nepal]

Murry's idea to fix the problem was simple: Fill the demand by growing the horns.

"This is way outside my box, but regenerative medicine can be used in conservation," he said.

He wasn't the only person with that idea, though. Matthew Markus, CEO of Seattle-based Pembient, had been working on a similar project to produce 3-D printed rhino horns. Pembient's products, which are still being designed and haven't hit the market yet, are synthetic, but they are complete with the proteins and DNA of rhinos and are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

Markus said he and his team had always been interested in tissue-engineering, so eventually he and Murry joined forces and started the venture. The project identified Ntombi, residing in a nature preserve in the northern-most part of South Africa, as the subject of their sequencing project — and even set up a Twitter account for the rhino.

But the project to flood rhino horn markets is not without controversy. Some conservationists have argued that the solution would go against years of efforts to reduce demand for the horns. Others argue that selling synthetic horns, in a market already brimming with fakes, would do nothing to drive down poaching.

Markus has responded by saying that the synthetic horns are almost identical, and tests that would show them as a fake are almost as expensive as the real product. He also said the company is working on collecting data to see what impact it would have on black markets.

"We take their concerns seriously," he said. "We want to get data first."

[This hunter paid $350,000 to kill an endangered rhino]

Scientists have already sequenced the genome of the northern white rhino — the other African species of which only four in the wild remain — and they plan to take the genome of the species and align it with the existing data on white rhinos. An analysis could show how the two species evolved to what they are today. It could also show where in the animals' genes diseases could emerge.

That would just be the beginning, though. There are plans to sequence DNA from the eight other subspecies of black rhino — three of which are already extinct — distinguished mostly via the location in Africa where they live. That could help understand genetic divergence and lay the groundwork to bring back lost subspecies.

"It's very forward-thinking," Murry said, adding that the technology of re-editing the DNA in living cells would take years — maybe decades — to develop.

Still, the concept has a strong fan base. Software engineers at DNAnexus, a cloud computing company based outside San Jose, Calif., were quick to offer their services for the project once they got wind of it on social media.

"It seems like a place we can really help the survival of rhinos," said Fahd Butt, a senior software engineer at the company.

[To save big cats from extinction, scientists say we need to redefine "tiger"]

There's been a much broader push to collect genetic data on threatened species. Another team of scientists, called the Genome 10K Project, is on a mission to create a genomic "Noah's Ark" of more than 10,000 species. The movement is assisted with expanding technology in the genomics field, growing in part due to easier access to systems that could store and analyze the massive amounts of data that come from sequencing DNA.

"It feels like a controlled explosion," DNAnexus CEO Richard Daly said. "It's not only getting cheaper, but the data is becoming more valuable."

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