CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Scientists have cloned the first endangered species in the US, a black-footed ferret derived from the genes of an animal that died over 30 years ago.
The creeping predator named Elizabeth Ann, born December 10th and announced Thursday, is cute as a button. But watch out – unlike the house ferret foster mother who carried her into the world, she is wild at heart.
“You may have picked up a black-footed ferret kit and then they’re trying to take your finger off the next day,” said Pete Gober, black-footed ferret recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “She holds her own.”
Elizabeth Ann was born and raised in a Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret farm in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is a genetic copy of a ferret named Willa who died in 1988 and whose remains were frozen in the early days of DNA technology.
Cloning could eventually bring back extinct species like the passenger pigeon. Right now, the technique shows promise to help endangered species, including a Mongolian wild horse that was cloned and born at a facility in Texas last summer.
“Biotechnology and genomic data can really make a difference in the field through environmental efforts,” said Ben Novak, senior scientist at Revive & Restore, a biotechnology-based conservation organization that coordinated ferret and horse cloning.
Black-footed ferrets are a type of weasel that can be easily identified by dark eye markings that resemble a robber’s mask. Charismatic and nocturnal, they feed exclusively on prairie dogs, while they live in the middle of the sometimes huge colonies of rodents.
Even before cloning, black-footed ferrets were a success story in nature conservation. They were considered extinct – victims of habitat loss when ranchers shot and poisoned prairie dog colonies that made rangelands less suitable for cattle – until a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead body to Wyoming in 1981.
Scientists gathered the remaining population for a captive breeding program that has released thousands of ferrets at dozens of locations across the western United States, Canada, and Mexico since the 1990s.
Lack of genetic diversity prevents persistent risk. All ferrets reintroduced to date are the offspring of only seven closely related animals – a genetic similarity that makes today’s ferrets potentially susceptible to intestinal parasites and diseases such as Sylvat’s plague.
Willa could have passed her genes on in the usual way, but a man born to her named Cody “didn’t do his job” and her lineage has died out, Gober said.
When Willa died, the Wyoming Wildlife and Fish Agency sent her handkerchiefs to a “frozen zoo” at the San Diego Zoo Global, which houses cells from more than 1,100 species and subspecies worldwide. Scientists may be able to modify these genes to allow cloned animals to survive.
“With these cloning techniques, you can basically freeze time and regenerate those cells,” Gober said. “We are now far from tinkering with the genome to confer genetic resistance, but that is a possibility for the future.”
Cloning creates a new plant or animal by copying the genes of an existing animal. Texas-based Viagen, which clones pet cats for $ 35,000 and dogs for $ 50,000, cloned a Przewalski horse, a wild horse species from Mongolia that was born last summer.
Similar to the black-footed ferret, the approximately 2,000 surviving Przewalski horses are descendants of only a dozen animals.
Viagen also cloned Willa by coordinating Revive & Restore, a biotechnology-focused conservation organization. In addition to cloning, the Sausalito, California nonprofit sponsors genetic research into endangered life forms, ranging from starfish to jaguars.
“How can we actually use some of these advances in science for conservation? Because conservation requires more tools in the toolbox. That is our whole motivation. Cloning is just one of the tools, ”said Ryan Phelan, Co-Founder and General Manager of Revive & Restore.
Elizabeth Ann was born to a tame house ferret who avoided putting a rare black-footed ferret in danger. Two unrelated house ferrets were also born from the Caesarean section; A second clone did not survive.
Elizabeth Ann and future clones of Willa will form a new line of black-footed ferrets who will stay in Fort Collins for study. There are currently no plans to release them into the wild, Gober said.
Novak, the senior scientist at Revive & Restore, calls himself the “passenger pigeon type” of the group for his work to one day bring back the bird that was once extinct for over a century. Cloning birds is considered to be far more difficult than mammals because of their eggs. However, the group’s projects include attempting to bring back a woolly mammoth, a creature that has been extinct for thousands of years.
The seven-year effort to clone a black-footed ferret is far less theoretical and shows how biotechnology can now contribute to conservation. In December, Novak charged an RV and drove his family to Fort Collins to see the results firsthand.
“I really had to see our beautiful clone in person,” said Novak. “There’s just nothing more incredible than that.”