Apr. 28, 2015 | By Alec

When talking about 3D bioprinting, images of laboratories where blood vessels, human bones and even organs are being grown in futuristic machines are almost immediately conjured up. But one San Francisco-based startup called Pembientis taking this groundbreaking technology into a different, but equally important, direction. They have developed a way of 3D printing actual rhino horns without harming these endangered animals. Hopefully, this can become a viable and environmentally-friendly alternative to a black market poaching trade that has already driven the Western Black Rhinoceros into extinction and has reduced the Northern White Rhinoceros to just five animals.

While it seems to be a bit far away from our comfortable 3D printing beds, the fact of the matter is that poaching is driving these gorgeous animals to extinction at lighting speeds. While the rhinos themselves are left to rot, the horns of the rhinos are used for classy ivory accessories in the Middle East and in traditional medicines in the Far East. The Rhinos are just one part of a gigantic illegal wildlife trade worth $20 billion annually.

But fortunately Pembient has a solution, as co-founder Matthew Markus told reporters. Originally a software engineer, he became convinced that something had to be done to save the rhino in 2006. Together with genetic engineer George Bonaci he founded Pembient, which is now capable of 3D printing rhino horns replicas that are genetically and aesthetically identical to rhino horns, but have nothing else to do with these majestic and endangered animals themselves.

Dropping costs of 3D printing technology and other key items in the genetic industry are now finally making this a viable manufacturing option. Pembient has essentially figured out the genetic code for the specific kind of keratin protein that rhino horns are composed of, and has begun 3D printing replica horns in keratin. The prototype visible above is the first Pembient creation, and Markus argues that it is as real as any poached rhino horn. 'You can’t physically tell the difference. No one looking at this could tell this wasn’t from a rhino. It’s the same thing. For all intents and purposes, this is a real rhino horn,’ he says.

While their business is still a start-up for all intents and purposes, the goal is to develop a marketable alternative that costs dramatically less than a poached horn, essentially robbing poachers of their business and incentive to kill endangered animals. Once successful with rhino horns, the same could be done for all endangered animals killed for their parts – such as elephants, pangolins and tigers. ‘Imagine ivory piano keys from an elephant tusk grown in a lab,’ Markus said. ‘But we need to get that [rhino horn] right first.’ Let’s hope they succeed before it’s too late and another rhino species is driven into extinction. 


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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Justin wrote at 8/30/2015 4:33:37 AM:

I was curious if this could be a safe alternative to ivory piano keys. Because I do believe there are those that would buy identical replacement for those items that are needed.

Steven wrote at 7/27/2015 6:59:38 PM:

Great, I was just thinking about the same way to solve the Rhino poaching problem. I really hope they succeed and open source all their technology. IMO, they should do it like this: 1) Finish technology. 2) Build an industrial size rhino horn plant in South Africa. 3) Secretly produce a huge quantity of rhino horn (e.g. 50 tons). 4) Make a deal with Woolworths: they get this 50 tons for free, but they have to sell it for max 10 ZAR and maximum 1 horn per customer. 5) Make an international press announcement in English and Mandarin saying that you are putting industrial quantities of fake rhino horn on the market. Tell that it is impossible to detect the difference with real horn, but that you have no idea about the health effects of consuming it. Tell that you are sure these legal horns will get in the black market trade channels and that consumers therefore never can be sure they are buying artificially manufactured rhino horn that has unknown long term health effects. Also release instructions in Mandarin language so that Chinese industry can start producing huge quantities themselves if they want to. Let's see how the rhine horn prices plummet

Mark Trounce wrote at 5/3/2015 3:03:32 PM:

I believe they have seriously misjudged both human nature and economic reality!Has Cubic Zirconia damaged the diamond trade? Did Nylon make the Fur trade obsolete? Has any artificial substitute done any thing other than enhance the aspirational nature of the original market?It is the demand for these "valuable" items that needs to be addressed not the supply, Chinese traditional medicine, together with an increase in disposable income represents a very real danger to everything from Seahorses to Tigers!-Don't pander(Pun intended) to these irrational beliefs, subvert them,make them unfashionable. Destroy the demand!

kenlord@gmail.com wrote at 5/1/2015 10:37:06 PM:

They actually think that asian men with erection problems will think fake rhino horns can replace the real thing? ... even though the real thing does nothing for them? To save the rhino, People have to come to understand that Traditional Chinese Medicine is nothing but magical wishful thinking, killing rhinos for nothing.

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