Image via Pixabay.com

A Biotech Approach to Stop Rhino Poaching

Pembient has been gaining media attention in the past few weeks

The San Francisco biotech startup company is looking to synthesize rhino horns in a lab setting in the near future or so. After being granted $50,000 of seed funding and appropriate lab space by IndieBio, Co-Founders Matthew Markus and George Bonaci are hoping that their efforts will curb rhino poaching in Africa and Asia, which has dramatically increased over time.

Dropping from over 500,000 at the brink of 20th century to less than 29,000 in the wild, rhinos are targeted by poachers for their massive horns, which are sold in Eastern black markets for their prestigious value/s and supposed ‘medicinal value’.

Using the Awesome Power of Genetics & Biotechnology

According to an AMA Reddit session, the Co-Founders didn’t go into minute detail about their methods, but they did mention that their synthesized rhino horns will be sourced from black rhino DNA, specifically from a female named Ntombi. To do that however, requires ‘decoding’ or sequencing of Ntombi’s DNA, which has recently received over $17,000 in crowdfunding.

Although it’s not explicitly stated, a look at their crowdfunding page seems to suggest that next generation illumina sequencing will be involved, a novel, fast, and (rather) cheap way to sequence a sample of DNA. When this sequencing is complete, Pembient would like to include the sequence DNA online for public view.

Using bioengineering methods related to tissue engineering , 3D printing, and a little bit of biochemistry, Pembient has created a ‘powder’ that consists of keratin, DNA, and other compounds that’s identical to its wild rhino horn counterpart (just sequence a sample or place it under a spectrophotometer)! This powder can then be used as an ‘ink’ for 3D printing into the shape of an actual black rhino horn.

The Possibility of Curbing Rhino Poaching

While some have argued that this approach will only give customers ‘more options’ to buy rhino horns, or may even encourage more poaching of rhinos for the ‘authentic stuff’, Pembient is hopeful that this biotechnological effort will outcompete wild horn sellers, at a fraction of their cost, while satisfying the demand for rhino horn.

Will this innovative, biotech startup benefit the rhino conservation efforts in Africa, or will it only exacerbate it? Give us your opinions below!

To keep up with Pembient and their project, follow them on social media via Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. You can also follow Ntombi via Twitter (yes, she has an account: @NtombiTheRhino).

Additional Resources & References

1. Aulakh, R. (2015, February 23). Biologist aims to grow rhino horns to save animals from poachers. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/02/23/biologist-aims-to-grow-rhino-horns-to-save-animals-from-poachers.html

2. Coxworth, B. (2015, July 9). Synthetic rhinoceros horn could help save real rhinos. Gizmag. Retrieved from http://www.gizmag.com/synthetic-rhinoceros-horn/38386/

3. Rawat, S. (2015, January 29). Pembient – bioengineered wildlife products. Synbiobeta. Retrieved from http://synbiobeta.com/pembient-bioengineered-wildlife-products/

4. Pembient’s IAMA Reddit Session (2015, June 22).

5. Save The Rhino organization.

 **Featured image via Pixabay.com.


Renee has received her B.Sc. in Honours Life Sciences at McMaster University. She loves educating others about different topics in science, and has developed a passion for scientific outreach. When she’s not writing articles for Hemtecks, she’s either volunteering or checking her social media accounts every 20 minutes. Along with Tiffany (Tianhemtecks), she also facilitates the blog’s Facebook page. 

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