Mixed reception for plan to 3D print rhino horn

Biotech startup Pembient plans to flood the market with synthetic, 3D-printed rhino horn, in a bid to save the animals from extinction.

Rhino horn fetches up to $65,000 a kilogram. Although made from keratin, the same substance of human hair and fingernails, it is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for fevers and convulsions. Western doctors say there is no evidence to support the treatment, but the sky-high prices have made efforts to protect the animals from poachers all but impossible.

Now, IFL Science reports,  Pembient plans to take keratin, add some rhino DNA to create a powder and use that to 3D print a horn shaped identically to one taken from a living rhino.

The product will sell for an eighth of the market rate for horns mutilated from previously living rhinos, which Pembient believes will force poachers out of business. “We’re like the universal cutting agent,” Pembient CEO Matthew Markus told Fast Company. “In the drug trade, usually a cutting agent is something that’s cheaper and inferior to the product being cut. But if we can offer something as good as the product being cut but vastly cheaper, then anyone in the trade will naturally gravitate to using our product.”


The conservation group International Rhino Foundation opposes the move, however, saying it could have the reverse effect and drive up demand for the “real thing”. In a statement to Quartz, the organisation said:

…production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, especially if they are sold as powder or in manufactured products.



Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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