July 30, 2015 / 6:05 PM / 4 years ago

Saving rhinos in a lab

San Francisco, California - Matthew Markus, of biotech company Pembient, is holding up a rhinoceros horn worth thousands of dollars on the black market because a poacher had to risk his life to kill an endangered species to obtain it. 

At least that is what Markus would have you believe.

The truth is this horn wasn’t cut off a rhino in the African savannah, it was bioengineered in lab in San Francisco.

Rhino horns are comprised primarily of keratin, a family of proteins that make up hair and nails. It is highly sought after in parts of Asia where it’s used as an ingredient in conventional medicine.  

Markus and his partner George Bonaci obtained a real rhino horn and are using the latest techniques in biotechnology to replicate it so perfectly that it passes as the real thing.  

“There is going to be some differences still. We are not bio-identical yet, though that is the goal. One of the interim goals is to make it more costly to test the object than the objects worth, and I think we are pretty much getting to that territory now,” said Markus.    

If they perfect the science, the idea is to sell the lab grown horns. Markus he sees current day poachers as his best customers.

“We can’t really control what happens to our horn once it leaves our distribution points. So there is potential that people will take our horn and re-label it as wild horn,” said Markus.  

“There are rangers, there are patrols, there is sometimes shoot to kill policies in place. We want to make it such that people (poachers) may not want to go out there and do this particular work anymore because it will not have this very lucrative payday for them,” he added.  

The big winners here are rhinos. Now that the technology to replicate their horns exists, the hope is that the incentive to hunt and kill them ends. 

In future Markus and Bonaci have plans to bioengineer other rare products like tiger bones and ivory with the hope of saving one endangered species at a time. 

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