A black-footed ferret was duplicated from the genes of an animal that died more than 30 years ago.
Scientists in the US have cloned the first endangered species – a black-footed ferret. The ferret was duplicated from the genes of an animal that died over 30 years ago reports NBC News.
The cutesy predator named Elizabeth Ann, born on December 10, and announced on Thursday, is absolutely adorable.
“You might have been handling a black-footed ferret kit and then they try to take your finger off the next day,” US Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret recovery coordinator Pete Gober told NBC on Thursday. “She’s holding her own,” he added.
Ann is being raised at a fish and wildlife service black-footed ferret breeding facility situated in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is a genetic clone of another ferret, Willa, who passed away in 1988. Willa’s remains were frozen and stored during the emerging days of DNA technology.
Cloning copies the genes of an existing animal to create a new one. The same can be done with plants as well. An infamous instance of animal cloning is Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell in 1994.
Cloning could potentially bring back other extinct species as well, such as the passenger pigeon. It can also help protect endangered species. For example, a Mongolian wild horse was closed at a Texas facility last summer.
“Biotechnology and genomic data can really make a difference on the ground with conservation efforts,” said Ben Novak, lead scientist with Revive & Restore, a biotechnology-focused conservation nonprofit that coordinated the ferret and horse clonings.
Black-footed ferrets possess dark eye markings and are a type of weasel. They are nocturnal, and they exclusively eat prairie dogs. They live among rodents in vast burrow colonies. They are known to be extremely charismatic.
Black-footed ferrets have been conservation success stories – even before they were cloned. They usually lose their habitats due to prairie dog shootings and poisonings, and were thought to be extinct until a dog named Shep found one in Wyoming in 1981.
Scientists preserved the remaining population and conducted a breeding program that has successfully released thousands of ferrets across sites in the US since the 1990s.
However, due to a lack of genetic diversity, ferrets are at risk. Due to genetic similarity, they are susceptible to diseases and parasites such as the sylvatic plague.
When Willa passed away, her tissues were sent to a “frozen zoo” run by San Diego Zoo Global. They regularly maintain cells from more than 1,100 species globally, and could be able to modify the genes to help cloned animals survive in the future.
“With these cloning techniques, you can basically freeze time and regenerate those cells,” Gober said. “We’re far from it now as far as tinkering with the genome to confer any genetic resistance, but that’s a possibility in the future.”
Viagen, a Texas based company that clones pets, cloned a Przewalski’s horse, a wild horse species from Mongolia last summer.
Viagen also cloned Willa through coordination by Revive & Restore, a wildlife conservation organization. The organization also conducts genetic research into imperiled life forms.
“How can we actually apply some of those advances in science for conservation? Because conservation needs more tools in the toolbox. That’s our whole motivation. Cloning is just one of the tools,” said Revive & Restore co-founder and executive director Ryan Phelan.
Elizabeth Ann was born to a domestic ferret, in order to avoid putting a rare black-footed ferret at risk.
Elizabeth Ann and future clones of Willa will form a new line of black-footed ferrets that will remain in Fort Collins for study. There currently are no plans to release them into the wild, said Gober.
Future clones of Willa and Ann will create a new line of black-footed ferrets, and will be studied in Fort Collins.
Novak, the lead scientist at Revive & Restore, is working to bring back the passenger pigeon. Cloning birds is a lot more challenging compared to cloning mammals because of their eggs.
The group also hopes to bring back a woolly mammoth, a creature that has been extinct for thousands of years. In recent developments across the world, teeth from mammoths buried in the Siberian permafrost for more than a million years have yielded the world's oldest DNA ever sequenced, providing hope for scientists globally.
The 7-year effort to clone a black-footed ferret was a lot simpler process wise, he said, and demonstrates how biotechnology can aid conservation. In December, Novak drove to Fort Collins with his family to see the results in person.
“I absolutely had to see our beautiful clone in person,” Novak said. “There’s just nothing more incredible than that.”