Scientists and conservation activists hope, while sharing the details of this breakthrough, that the first endangered American species to be successfully cloned, the black-footed ferret, could pave the way for the return of endangered animals from the brink of extinction. Elizabeth Ann might look like any other black-footed ferret, but the nearly two-month-old animal was actually created from the frozen cells of an animal that lived three decades ago.
His name was Willa, who was hunted 30 years ago and whose genes have been preserved by the Wyoming Game & Fish division. Willa’s cell cultures were kept at the San Diego Zoo Global Frozen Zoo, but the sample was drawn from a cryobank in an attempt to inject new genetic diversity into the black-legged ferret lineage.
The species was, at one point, considered extinct. However, a final colony was discovered in 1981, living on Earth in Wyoming. A captive breeding population of some of these animals started, but it ran into a serious – and growing – problem.
All rodents known today are descended from only seven individuals. This leads to a decrease in genetic diversity, which may lead to an increased susceptibility to disease, along with a decreased fertility rate. What Elizabeth Ann represents is a successful attempt to use cloning to introduce new DNA into the species.
What is key is that Willa has no surviving offspring, or at least no known offspring in the current population, and her genome was very unique. “A genomic study revealed that Wella’s genome has three times the unique differences from living populations,” said the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Declaration. “Therefore, if Elizabeth Ann succeeds in successfully interbreeding and reproducing, she could provide unique genetic diversity for the species.”
It was hardly an easy road to reach for a new ferret baby, mind. The project began in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2018 when the first restoration permit was issued for cloning research of endangered species. This allowed the scientists at Revive & Restore to start genetic analyzes and conduct proof-of-concept experiments. They worked using cloning techniques developed by ViaGen Pets & Equine, which created embryos from a frozen Willa cell line.
These embryos were implanted into a local ferret acting as a surrogate. He grew up at the National Black Foot Preservation Center (NBFFCC), and gave birth to Elizabeth Anne.
Both rodents will be separated from the rest of the breeding black-legged rodent, and there are no plans to release Elizabeth Ann into the wild. More ferret clones are being produced. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to search for new, natural black-legged rodents in hopes of discovering new genetic material there as well.
Even if cloning succeeds in moving forward, it will not suffice by itself to take the species off the endangered species list. Noren Walsh, Mountain Prairie District Director on Service, notes that “Successful genetic cloning does not diminish the importance of addressing habitat-based threats to the species or focusing the service on addressing habitat conservation and management to restore black-footed rodents.” The animal recovery plan includes attempts to restore their natural habitat to give those in the wild the greatest possible chance to reproduce.