3D Printing

Synthetic rhinoceros horn could help save real rhinos

Pembient hopes that its bioengineered rhino horn could keep wild rhinos from being hunted
Pembient hopes that its bioengineered rhino horn could keep wild rhinos from being hunted
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An example of Pembient's 3D-printed synthetic rhino horn
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An example of Pembient's 3D-printed synthetic rhino horn
The powder used to create the synthetic horn
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The powder used to create the synthetic horn
Plans call for Pembient's bioengineered rhino horn to sell for around US$7,600/kg
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Plans call for Pembient's bioengineered rhino horn to sell for around US$7,600/kg
Pembient hopes that its bioengineered rhino horn could keep wild rhinos from being hunted
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Pembient hopes that its bioengineered rhino horn could keep wild rhinos from being hunted

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.

An example of Pembient's 3D-printed synthetic rhino horn
An example of Pembient's 3D-printed synthetic rhino horn

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."

Plans call for Pembient's bioengineered rhino horn to sell for around US$7,600/kg
Plans call for Pembient's bioengineered rhino horn to sell for around US$7,600/kg

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.

Source: Pembient

5 comments
StWils
Great Idea! Flood the Asian markets with cheap, tacky American ersatz copies of the originals! This is a wonderful opportunity to make something for the Chinese consumer that could only be improved a bit more by making it somehow vaguely toxic, just like Chinese pharmaceuticals. As a final ironic touch the labels should show a pair of plastic pink flamingoes necking a little. This will work great for about one season until a half dozen or so Chinese companies figure out how to make a knockoff themselves.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Will people get their money back if it doesn't work as an aphrodisiac?
windykites
Why not track a rhino, anaesthetise it, saw off the horn, and replace it with an artificial one, maybe painted with a colour? In this way the poachers will realise there is no prize for them. I find it hard to believe that any person who thinks that the horn has any medicinal properties, would believe that these properties could be recreated in a synthetic horn.
John Banister
If they let these people sell synthetic rhino horn, then they ought to let John Hume sell his farmed rhino horn. It would reduce the price, and so reduce demand in exactly the same fashion.
Matthew Jacobs
I heard a much cheaper solution recently... Painting or staining the horn kills their value. No value ..no need to kill the animal.
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