Improving the Present and Preserving the Future

As the world of 3D printing continues to expand, new ways to solve problems, both old and new, are being discovered. It has already proven successful in helping to solve some age-old problems, such as physical health problems that come with aging. For example, 3D printing has already been used to create a replica of a human heart in order to more easily perform a delicate complex surgery to replace a heart valve. It has also proved instrumental in reducing the time it takes to produce other kinds of custom valves used in the manufacturing industry, many service industries, and in virtually every modern home and garden.


One of the new problems it may help to solve is the extinction of several species of animals. Scientists now understand how fragile our ecosystem is and that each species plays an important role in maintaining it. Through their study of bees, scientists have demonstrated the extent to which all species are interdependent upon one another for their survival. One of the many species facing extinction due to the activities of humans is the rhinoceros.


Luckily, although modern weapons and travel technology has been partly responsible for the plight of the rhinoceros, technology may also provide the means to save them. The rhinoceros has long been hunted for its horn, which is believed to contain medicinal powers. Many people believe that the powder made from the horn can prevent hangovers, detoxify the body, reduce fever, and even serve as an aphrodisiac. Those beliefs have resulted in the price of rhinoceros’ horn powder literally being worth more than its weight in gold. It’s price on the black market, by weight, is actually higher than gold, which has resulted in mass poaching and the near extinction of the species.


In 2014, illegal poaching was responsible for the deaths an average of three rhinoceroses every day. According to Save the Rhino‘s most recent figures, the number of southern white rhinos left alive is only 20,405. There are just five northern white rhinos left, and they are too old to reproduce. Black rhinos, which number just 5,055, are also on the critically endangered list. Two other Asian species number less than 100.


Matthew Markus, co-founder of Pembient, has a controversial plan to use 3D printing to help save the rhino from extinction. He believes that if his company can reproduce rhino horn in the lab, it will drive down the price to one tenth of its current price on the black market, and therefore reduce poaching. Using a combination of 3D printing and reverse engineering, he is working towards creating a “bio-identical” product. In fact, he claims it will be a superior product, in that it won’t include pollutants found in wild horn.


Rhino horn consists of mostly keratin, and the prototypes utilize wool keratin, which is similar to that in rhino horn. Pembient plans to use yeast cells to produce keratins identical to those of rhino horns. Fungus can become a rhino keratin production center by inserting a gene into yeast that codes for rhino keratin. It is only a matter of time until the exact genes needed are identified and isolated, since the white rhino genome was sequenced in 2012. According to market research done in VietNam, 45% of the 500 people surveyed said they would be willing to purchase manufactured horn instead of wild horn.


However, the Save the Rhino charity, based in the UK, strongly disagrees with this method of helping to stop poaching. They and the International Rhino Foundation issued a joint statement in which they voiced their opposition to the production of synthetic rhino horn. They believe that education and the eradication of superstitious, medically unsubstantiated beliefs about the medicinal qualities of rhino horn is the best way to stop poaching.
Superstition is a strong force, and often takes generations to eradicate. With so few remaining rhinos, and so many being killed so quickly, Markus is hoping that he can utilize the scientific miracle of 3D printing to buy them the time needed to re-educate people. With a combination of science and education, perhaps rhinos won’t become our grandchildren’s dinosaurs and their children will still be able to enjoy scenes like this.