Scientists clone a North American endangered ferret for the first time

Date:22 February 2021 Author: Kyro Mitchell

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has successfully cloned the endangered North American black-footed ferret for the first time.

The successful clone represents the first genetic copy of a North American endangered species and could go a long way in preserving other animal species that are at risk of going extinct.

Elizabeth Ann, born on December 10th, was cloned from the frozen cells of “Willa,” a black-footed ferret that lived more than 30 years ago. A team of scientists from ViaGen Pets & Equine worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to create embryos from Willa’s frozen cells and implanted them into a domestic ferret surrogate.

According to Noreen Walsh, Director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, “Although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America, and it provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret.”

The North American black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct until a rancher in Wyoming discovered a small group of seven individuals in 1981. Since then they have been part of a captive breeding program to try and grow the species, according to the BBC.

Today, all black-footed ferrets are descended from these seven individuals, resulting in unique genetic challenges to recovering this species.

This small number of individuals has put limitations on the species’ genetic diversity, creating challenges for resiliency to changing environments and emerging disease threats. Willa, a black-footed ferret captured among the last wild individuals, has no living descendants and is therefore not one of the seven founders.

Luckily, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department had the foresight to preserve her genes and sent tissue samples from Willa to San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo in 1988. The Frozen Zoo established a cell culture and stewarded these precious frozen cells ever since, making today’s achievement possible.

A genomic study revealed Willa’s genome possessed three times more unique variations than the living population. Therefore, if Elizabeth Ann successfully mates and reproduces, she could provide unique genetic diversity to the species.

“It was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann. To see her now thriving ushers in a new era for her species and for conservation-dependent species everywhere. She is a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue,” said Ryan Phelan, Revive & Restore Executive Director.


Picture: Twitter/@Douglas_Main

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