Perhaps one of the most buzzed-about options of late comes from Seattle-based biotech company Pembient, which wants to 3D-print synthetic rhino horns to flood the market and lessen demand for the real thing.
The company claims to be reverse-engineering a fake rhino horn that is genetically identical to those from wild rhinos. Pembient's hope is that by flooding the market with fake horn, demand for real horn will decline—it's the e-cig of rhino horn, if you like—leading to a reduction in the astronomical rhino horn prices that fuel poaching in the first place.
But experts are skeptical that combating the rhino horn trade with faux horn disguised as the real stuff will quell demand, which is crucial to combating any destructive wildlife market. Conservation groups are concerned that any action to legitimize the trade will increase demand for the real product, leading to more poached rhinos—the same argument they've used against proposals to create a legal, regulated rhino horn market.
“Our position [is] it’s a creative idea but because of the nature of the market, there’s so much demand that increasing supply [with] the current conditions in Vietnam it would exacerbate the problem,” Rachel Kramer, a program officer at TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network partner of the World Wildlife Foundation, told me in March. “We don't think it would have an impact on reducing poaching levels.”
Matthew Markus, a biologist and co-founder of Pembient, disagrees, citing how fake fur has played a role in demand reduction for the real thing, coal oil saved the whale, and fake Christmas trees have become the norm.
“We don't feel we're a silver bullet,” he told Motherboard. “We do think that alternatives play an important role in changing people's behaviors and perceptions, though. It is a lot easier to modify a behavior then stop or prohibit one.”
Still, Pembient's horn needs to pass the scrutiny of buyers looking for what is treated as a very rare luxury good. The scheme only works if consumers can’t tell or don't mind the difference—and with the horns pulling up to $300,000 on the black market, you can bet they will be willing to drop a few bucks to verify the horns are legit. So how well does the manufactured horn stand up to those found in nature?
Pembient's synthetic horn looks similar to the real thing. Image: Pembient
Rhino horns are extremely difficult to replicate, according to Josiah Zayner, a bioengineering scientist and research fellow at NASA Ames Research Center. The chemically complex horn is primarily made up of keratin, a protein that makes up our hair and nails and has no proven medical properties, and a variety of other components. It has an intricate macro structure at its core made of calcium and melanin, and its keratin proteins contain disulfide bonds between cysteine amino acids, which help create the structures of hair and horn, that would be especially difficult to reproduce.
“Disulfide bonds makes the whole protein expression and purification process much more difficult,” Zayner said. “Because if they form in the cell they can make expression difficult, if you are trying to form them outside the cell it require an extra step or steps in the process which will invariably affect the amount of protein and the cost in time or work hours.”
Early reports showed Pembient prototypes were made using commercially sourced wool keratin, which Zayner said is far from identical to actual rhino keratin.
“A very, very simple analysis would be able to tell that their rhino horn is fake,” Zayner said by email of Pembient’s product. “The rhino keratin proteins and wool keratin are not more than 50 percent similar in amino acid sequence. In fact the human hair keratin protein is just as similar to rhino keratin as sheep’s wool.”
Markus said the product does not have to be a completely indiscernible copy of a natural horn in order to have the demand reduction effect Pembient is hoping for.
“It’s so expensive it’s ludicrous and anything we do is going to drop the price,” he said. “Our big goal is to attack the price. We want to make sure we can produce these things way below what the black market is trying to price them at. We’re about abundance—you can try to dry up all the demand in the world.”
Zayner said the relatively inexpensive tests he believes could identify the horn copy include elemental analysis and visible light spectroscopy, a simple technique that can be completed with a kit purchased online.
But Markus said initial prototypes passed both chemical and spectroscopic analyses.
“The basic chemistry tests we’ve used look very good, the genetic tests look very good,” he said. “We know where the process breaks down, and we are our own worst critics. But I think we’ve gotten a solid start.”
He also said the wool keratin that could be more easily detected in tests played a larger role in earlier models, and the company is working to eliminate it completely. Instead, he says Pembient is using a synthetic biology process to engineer the same keratins found in rhino horns in the lab.
To do this, scientists insert a short gene of rhino keratin into either yeast or bacteria, which can be programmed to reproduce the protein in large amounts. Essentially, they are hijacking the yeast’s genome to replicate the keratin that goes into the horn.
“It’s like we have protein factories,” Markus told Motherboard. “We separate the protein side from the genetic side, which might be kind of strange in some respects but it’s the best way to make this process sort of scaleable. So we basically have these host organisms that excrete these proteins, and they’re filtered, then we do all sorts of stuff with the proteins to build up the signature of the horn.”
The keratin is later combined with other components of the rhino horn and shaped into the manufactured model through a 3D printing process. According to Zayner, the main technological hurdle to this process would be protein expression and purification, which are time and resource intensive. He said 100 micrograms of commercially produced human keratin protein at 90 percent purity sells for $352, which he said by extrapolation would mean 1 kg of horn would then be $3,520,000,000. An average rhino horn weighs 1-4 kg.
Earlier this year our colleagues at VICE on HBO tracked the trade of rhino horn from South Africa to Vietnam.
“Obviously this number is ridiculous but even if it is a 1000-fold mark-up, 1 kg would still cost around ~$3.5 million,” he said by email. “One would imagine that a company that sells a purified protein has also spent time trying to optimize the protein's expression so it doesn't make Pembient's prospects look good.”
Markus said Pembient currently focuses on purifying components that are more simple to process, and if they are unable to produce a sufficient amount of purified keratin, they add wool keratin to the mix.
“It’s all about trying to get a prototype,” he said. “We always want to be producing prototypes and just trying to make those better. That’s how you work, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Pembient, which is a private company, is working to get its costs down to 1/8th of the black market price, which reportedly can run as high as $100,000 per kilo. It intends to enter the market as a branded ingredient, Markus told me, selling the fake horns to companies “currently using water buffalo horn or other inferior substitutes in their products.” They also want to loan or grant horns to communities surrounding wildlife areas so they can sell the horns into the black market.
After the synthetic keratin is produced, the proteins are combined with other components found in rhino horns, like sulfides and metals, to create a powder base for 3D-printing.
“The powder is like the ink for this process,” Markus said. “Basically, the powder is the input for the printing process, and the powder has all the things we want it to have before it goes to printing.”
Markus said the current 3D-printed process produced surprisingly accurate copies of rhino horns.
“They are pretty good,” he said. “I was skeptical of the 3D printing, I thought it was kind of beyond our capabilities, but we produced really nice prototypes. They have similar hardness or density, it’s kind of incredible that they exist.”
He said at the moment, one of Pembient’s major goals is staying one step ahead of poachers by anticipating and outsmarting potential tests to detect fake horns.
“We think fake horn serves as a buffer on the demand for real rhino horns. When these kinds of technologies come along and people can easily detect if something is fake, the fake market will disappear,” he said. “So we are trying to get ahead of that and make fakes that can withstand the test of time. [We are looking at] sort of basic tests right now, so obviously you go along and we are working our way up the chain of complexity and shooting to pass as many tests as we can possibly pass.”
Of course, Pembient is also anticipating the horns could be submitted for DNA testing relatively easily and have added a rhino “DNA signature” to its prototypes. There are several ways of incorporating rhino DNA into the manufactured horn, Markus said, including copying and amplifying DNA from an actual rhino or replicating rhino DNA through synthetic DNA processes.
“There are benefits and drawbacks to different types of approaches,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ve settled on any way of doing it, but we’ve definitely explored all the ways of doing it—I can’t think of any we haven’t right now.”
Zayner said whole genome amplification would only cost a couple of hundred dollars per horn, but it would still be easy to identify as fake.
"It is a lot easier to modify a behavior then stop or prohibit one."
“Their plan only works if people are looking specifically for rhino DNA and/or Pembient produces a pure sample,” Zayner said. “If they use wool or any other keratin all the poacher would need to do is look for other DNA that is not rhino DNA. This can be done through PCR and would be just as trivial as testing if it was rhino DNA. Because Pembient using wool is now public knowledge it means the poachers also know and so know to test for other DNA.”
With a valuable product like rhino horns, these tests are almost inevitable, according to Krishna Roskin, a computational immunologist at Stanford.
“For a couple hundred bucks you could send a sample of the rhino horn DNA to test it, and that would not be too difficult to detect, you would just look at the actual proteins that are in the horn,” he told Motherboard. “It’s a weird concept, because the product is so expensive. If someone makes a counterfeit handbag you aren't going to spend as much money to find out if its real. But if you're talking about a half a million rhino horn the possibilities are larger for testing.”
Pembient has tested the horns for safety—if someone is sufficiently fooled by the fake horn, and grinds it up and consumes it, it would be edible. Markus said the company has designed the production technology for easy expansion, and they foresee that they could indefinitely fabricate horns.
But still, many people are skeptical of the fake horn’s ability to lower the value of actual horns.
“I don't know of any instance where a fake product has curbed the use of the real one. Is there?” Zayner said. “There are people who sell fake wine and fake paintings and fake drugs but over time that has just made people more diligent about acquiring the real thing. In the end how much is rhino horn a medicine people actually believe in? It seems to be more of a status symbol.”