San Francisco-based biotech startup Pembient has developed what they believe will be a solution to save rhinos from the poaching crisis. With the help of synthetic biology, they will create a powder, containing animal DNA to 3D print the horns. Rhino horns are highly sought throughout in Asia for conventional medicine and as talismans in Africa. The bioengineered horns will cost $7,600 per kg, that is about 1/8th of the average price of rhino horn ($65,000 per kg) on the illegal market. “Our survey shows 45% of the users would accept using horn made from a lab,” Pembient president Matthew Markus told Metro.
Q: What’s the situation with rhinos?
– They are experiencing a poaching crisis. Last year, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone. They're poached for their horns, which are coveted in East Asia. It is there that rhino horn has a long history of being used in art and medicine.
Q: So, there’s a big demand on them?
– We estimate that over 6,000 kg of horn was taken from the wild in 2014. Furthermore, in South Africa, the 5-year compound annual growth rate in poaching is an astounding 58.36%.
Q: Why create bioengineered horns?
– Many people who couldn't afford luxuries in the past now have the disposable income to indulge in them. Since rhino horn is viewed as a forbidden and powerful talisman, many people want it. The legal trade in rhino horn is banned, so the only way to satisfy this demand is through poaching. As rhinos dwindling, rhino horn becomes more expensive and poaching becomes more lucrative. This leads to a ‘supply-and-demand extinction vortex.’ Bioengineering rhino horn introduces a large, legal, and cruelty-free supply of horn to the market. The goal of this intervention is to put a downward pressure on the price of rhino horn and thereby disincentives poachers from hunting rhinos.
Q: How’s the process in creating them?
– We engineer yeast cells to produce the same keratins found in rhino horn. These keratins are then amalgamated with other natural components of rhino horn, such as trace elements and rhino DNA. Finally, this material is used as an ink in a 3D printing process. The end result is a horn that has the same physical, genetic, and spectrographic properties as wild horn.
Q: Would people be interested in something they know is not real?
– We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45% of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab. In comparison, only 15% said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn. Additionally, it should be noted that we cannot prevent unscrupulous people from reselling our horn as wild horn.
Q: What about fake horns that are on the market?
– We view the fake horn being traded on the market as a buffer on true demand. That buffer is about to be eliminated. Already, ConsumerPhysics 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.