In both Africa and Asia, rhino poaching is causing serious concerns about the dwindling population of the endangered animal. Popular for having medicinal qualities in these cultures, a rhinoceros’ horn is widely the reason it is hunted for. A San Franciscan biotech startup called Pembient is producing bio-engineered, 3D printed rhino horns that could put a stop to the hunting and replace the item at the same time.
“We create synthetic rhino horn by taking advantage of advances in synthetic biology and 3D printing,” expressed Pembient president Matthew Markus. “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.”
This poses the question as to the practicality of replacing a widely desired natural product with pseudo super powers with a synthetic one. According to a survey conducted by Pembient, 45% consumers said they’d go for it, which far greater a number than logically expected.
But the International Rhino Foundation is a little worried about the initiative. They suspect that introduction of the resource to currently unable population may tempt them to climb a little further for the original product, increasing poaching instead of reducing it. It also notes that 90% of rhino horn available in the market is already fake, which increases the price of the real rhino horns manifolds, attracting wealthier buyers.
“We view the fake horn being traded on the market as a buffer on true demand,” Markus responds to these musings. “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.” That is a visionary leap but looking at technology’s gait, it may just happen sooner or later.
Pembient has been approached by economists and academics to venture into a study of the effects of introducing the bio-engineered horns in the market, which slightly throws the startup off its product release plan. Once a system for the observation is in place, Pembient will sell the rhino horn for US$7,600/kg, which according to Markus is one-eighth the price of an original rhino horn. A contribution from the profits will go towards the protection and management of wild rhinos.