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Pembient Reveals a Bioengineered Rhino Horn that Will Stop Poachers in Their Tracks

Operation Lock and the War on Rhino PoachingKilling for ProfitA Seattle-based biotech startup named Pembient may be able to save the rhino from extinction – by developing a bioengineered rhino horn that is genetically similar to the real thing, yet cheaper than the current market price that continues to allow poaching.

Wired journalist Katie Collins reports that the company will reproduce rhino horns using 3D printing and keratin and that it aims to replace the illegal wildlife trade with with sustainable commerce.

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Markus told TechCrunch that “you can’t physically tell the difference” between horn from a real rhino and horn that has been engineered in the lab.

He says that many wildlife traders would be happy to use a genetically engineered substitute for horn. “We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45 percent of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab,” he says. “In comparison, only 15 percent said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn.”

Pembient recently demonstrated their new synthetic rhino horn during an event organised by IndieBio, where the biotech company also announced a crowdfunding initiative in aid of the black rhino.

GEN News reports that the project is not without its critics. The executive director of of the International Rhino Fund, Susie Ellis, said: “Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn or and could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for ‘the real thing’.”

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During the demonstration day, which took place June 11, Pembient also announced a crowdfunding campaign to sequence the genome of the black rhinoceros and release it to the public domain.

Both initiatives are meant to preserve endangered rhinos. By manufacturing synthetic rhino horn, Pembient hopes to flood the market, disrupting the illicit trade by bringing prices below the levels that induce poaching. It is a relatively immediate solution to a pressing problem. According to Pembient, poaching has increased over 90-fold since 2007, a trend linked to rising standards of living in Asia, where rhino horn is prized as a traditional medicine and status symbol. It is estimated that only 5,055 black rhinos are still alive in the wild.

Pembient CEO Matthew Markus told IEEE Spectrum that they plan to meet the demand for horns at one-eighth the black-market price: “We’ll make money; the poaching syndicates won’t.”

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Pembient’s process, Markus explained briefly, involves running synthetic keratin through chemical reactions to turn it into the specific type of keratin protein that makes up natural rhino horn. The company adds rhino DNA to the mix, and then turns it into a keratin “ink” that’s compatible with a 3-D printer. Finally, Pembient “grows” the horn.

For more about the rhino crisis in South Africa read Operation Lock and the War on Rhino Poaching by John Hanks and Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade by Julian Rademeyer.

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