My first trip to South Africa

The International Rhino Reproduction Collaborative (IRRC) team consists of a variety of groups in the world including six in South Africa (University of Pretoria, EmbryoPlus, SANParks, Geolifes, Buffalo Dream Ranch, Institute for Rhino Cryogenetics) and San Diego Zoo Global. As described in a previous blog, the objective of this team is to collaborate to help save the Northern white rhino from going extinct as part of the Northern White Rhino Initiative. 

Every other year the team meets in one of the participating countries. This time, it was South Africa and this time, I was invited to come! This would be my first trip to South Africa. I was excited and nervous at the same time. After a long 33 hours of travel, we finally arrived. Our first task at hand was to collect semen from three different southern white rhinos. Three IRRC teams collected semen from the males to compare methods of collection and semen freezing. This was great to compare and contrast the different methods and techniques each team used. I love when I can take home new information that I learned from watching someone else and apply it in our lab. 

My main goal on this trip was to ensure laboratory protocol consistency across all groups. Therefore, I led discussions and trained my colleagues from University of Pretoria, EmbryoPlus, SANParks and Geolifes in in vitro oocyte maturation and fertilization as well as embryo development. Before any oocyte collection could occur, all the media needed to be made up and equilibrated (placed in the incubator). The culture media contains hormones, sugars, serum, etc. that oocytes need to mature and grow. It was important to make the media as a team to ensure we are all formulating it the same way. Once this was completed, we were ready for the rhino oocytes. 

Oocyte collection was conducted by Dr. Morné de la Rey of EmbryoPlus by ovum pick up (OPU). This technique will be described in detail in a subsequent blog. Unfortunately, no rhino oocytes were collected during our time in South Africa, however we were able to train laboratory techniques by substituting equine and bovine oocytes. Essentially, the process would be exactly the same. These oocytes were placed into the equilibrated maturation medium that we all made up together. Once they were mature, we performed a technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a procedure where a single sperm is selected and injected into the egg using micromanipulators. University of Pretoria and EmbryoPlus both received their first set of micromanipulators just before we arrived. 

Each member of the team practiced ICSI on a few oocytes. As a team, we were able to watch each other and troubleshoot any problems that came up, whether it be issues with the injection needle, membrane disruption of the sperm, or micromanipulation set up. It was fantastic to have everyone from the different groups in the same room. We all learned so much from each other, and now I truly believe that if any group has rhino oocytes, we are all fully capable of maturing those oocytes, fertilizing them and growing them in vitro. 

Overall, my first trip to South Africa was very successful! 

Photo above: The IRRC group in the lab at University of Pretoria.