Cloning: The next frontier of wildlife conservation?
The first clone of a U.S. endangered species is born
One kit born on Dec. 10 to a domesticated ferret at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife facility in Carr, Colo., was the first of its kind. With a raccoon-like face and a long slender body, Elizabeth Ann is a black-footed ferret and the first-ever clone of a U.S. endangered species. Wildlife officials hope one day she will produce offspring so her genetic diversity can help stabilize the small and sickly population of black-footed ferrets. Some hope cloning may prove a useful strategy in conservation in the long term.
But first, biologists need Elizabeth Ann to grow up. “You might have been handling a black-footed ferret kit and then they try to take your finger off the next day,” said Pete Gober, who leads the recovery effort at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “She’s holding her own.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Feb. 18 announced Elizabeth Ann’s successful birth to a surrogate mother. Genetically speaking, she is an exact copy of a ferret named Willa that died in 1988 while a part a captive breeding program. At the time, wildlife officials in Wyoming sent Willa’s tissue to a tissue bank run by the San Diego Zoo.
Scientists clone animals by putting DNA from the original individual into a donated egg cell. The DNA from the cloned organism replaces the DNA of the donated egg. From there, the egg develops into an embryo in a test tube. Scientists later implant the embryo into the womb of a compatible surrogate female. The clone represents an exact DNA copy of the original animal.
Few scientific issues generate more ethical debates than cloning. While most concerns center on human cloning, some scientists and Christians have misgivings about cloning animals. Some have expressed concern that the practice could lead to human cloning. And some scientists worry about the welfare of cloned animals.
The slender black-footed ferret used to feast on prairie dogs across the Great Plains and the American West. But the population crashed when farmers and ranchers began exterminating pesky prairie dogs, leaving the ferret population without a viable food source. By the late-1970s, wildlife experts presumed the black-footed ferret to be extinct. But in 1981, ranchers John and Lucille Hogg found that their dog, Shep, had dropped a recently killed black-footed ferret on their porch near Meeteetse, Wyo. Wildlife officials later found a small—but living—colony. The population grew until four years later, when researchers discovered it was infected with the plague (Yersinia pestis). Before the colony died out, wildlife officials trapped 11 males and seven females to start a breeding program. Of the 18, eleven were unable to produce offspring.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to clone a black-footed ferret for seven years. The agency partnered with ViaGen Pets, which for a large fee will clone a pet dog or cat. In 2020, ViaGen cloned a Przewalski’s horse, a type of endangered wild horse native to Mongolia. If the clones can successfully introduce their genetic material into breeding programs, conservationists will have another tool to bring a species back from the brink.
Elizabeth Ann is so valuable because she isn’t closely related to any of the living black-footed ferrets. Besides her, the entire population is descended from just those seven closely-related predecessors. The inbreeding in the stock makes the ferret population more susceptible to diseases like the plague. Genetic diversity makes it more likely the black-footed ferret will survive as a species. Conservationists plan to clone siblings for Elizabeth Ann and line up potential mates to take advantage of her fresh blood. “[Elizabeth Ann] has no living descendants in the population,” Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Paul Marinari told Smithsonian Magazine. “If she produces kits and we can properly harness her genetic diversity, it will absolutely benefit the species—the more genetic diversity we have, the better.”
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