When asked to name an endangered species, rhinos are probably one of the first animals to come to most peoples' minds. In both Africa and Asia, poaching is causing populations to plummet, due mainly to demand for rhino horn as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine – whether or not it actually has any medicinal value is another question altogether. In any case, San Francisco-based biotech startup Pembient is developing what it hopes could be a solution: inexpensive bioengineered rhino horn, which could out-compete the genuine item.
"We create synthetic rhino horn by taking advantage of advances in synthetic biology and 3D printing," explains Pembient president Matthew Markus to Gizmag. "First, we engineer yeast cells to produce the same keratins found in rhino horn. These keratins are then amalgamated with the other natural components of rhino horn, such as trace elements and rhino DNA. The end result is a powder. This powder may be used as an 'ink' in a 3D printing process to make solid objects, including horns."
An example can be seen below.
That said, would many people be interested in buying something that they know isn't the real thing? According to a survey of rhino horn users conducted by Pembient, a claimed 45 percent of them said they would. It's not an ideal number, but it's better than the 15 percent who said they'd be willing to use water buffalo horn, which is currently the most common substitute.
Additionally, however, the International Rhino Foundation recently questioned how effective bioengineered horn could actually be in reducing poaching. Among other things, the group suspects that the cheaper synthetic horn might introduce a wider group of consumers to the product, who would subsequently want to "trade up" to natural horn once they could afford it.
What's more, the foundation states that an estimated 90 percent of "rhino horn" on the market is already fake (see the earlier-mentioned buffalo horn, for example), and that this simply drives wealthy buyers to seek out – and pay more for – the real thing.
"We view the fake horn being traded on the market as a buffer on true demand," says Markus in response. "That buffer is about to be eliminated. Already, Consumer Physics is selling a molecular sensor for $250. These sort of advances will be incorporated into the next generation of smartphones and act to remove the existing fakes from the market. That will, in turn, put more pressure on the rhinos for the genuine article. We aim to fill the gap. Our goal is that there be no discernible difference between our product and the genuine article. In the absence of any legal certification authority for the genuine article, we believe our (cheaper) horn will permeate the illegal market so that it becomes impossible to acquire the genuine article with any level of confidence."
Pembient had originally planned to have its product on the market by the end of this year. That may be delayed, however, as "academics and economists" have contacted the company about first setting up a system to monitor the bioengineered horn's effect on the marketplace.
Once that system is in place, plans call for the product to sell for around US$7,600/kg, with a portion of all sales going toward the protection and management of wild rhinos. According to Markus, that's about one-eighth the price of natural rhino horn.