Scientists have successfully cloned an endangered black-footed ferret from the genes of an animal named Willa that had died over thirty years ago. After Willa died, her remains were frozen and sent from Wyoming to San Diego Zoo Global that maintains a bank of frozen tissues for over 1,100 endangered and threatened species.
The clone has been named Elizabeth Ann, and she will be a part of a new line of the endangered ferret housed at a breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. The facility is run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct from habitat loss in the Great Plains, and ranchers poisoning prairie dogs to make cattle safe for walking amidst the prairie dog’s underground colonies. The large rodent is this ferret’s primary food source, and their colonies provide shelter and space for their young to be born and raised.
A dog brought one dead body to its home in Wyoming decades ago. Scientists spread out over the area locating and capturing the remaining population that eventually led to a successful breeding program.
In the 1990s, the descendants of this group of seven were then released into North America’s great plains just west of the 100th meridian. It is estimated there are now over 300-1000 black-footed ferrets in the wild. The lack of genetic diversity makes the animal vulnerable to disease. Science has not been able to engineer gene resistance, but they are working on it.
Elizabeth Ann was born and is being raised at a Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. She’s 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 eventually could bring back extinct species such as the passenger pigeon. For now, the technique holds promise for helping endangered species including a Mongolian wild horse that was cloned and last summer-born at a Texas facility.
“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.
The cloning activities are designed specifically for conservation efforts at this moment in times of extreme peril for the world’s biodiversity.
Viagen also cloned Willa through coordination by Revive & Restore, a wildlife conservation organization focused on biotechnology. Besides cloning, the nonprofit in Sausalito, California, promotes genetic research into imperiled life forms ranging from sea stars to jaguars.
“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 tame domestic ferret, which avoided putting a rare black-footed ferret at risk. Two unrelated domestic ferrets also were born by cesarian section; a second clone didn’t survive.
Elizabeth Ann will not be released into the wild despite the restoration of some grassland biomes in the west. At least not anytime soon, say, wildlife officials. Instead, she and any other additional clones yet to be born will remain in Colorado for study.
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.
“We’ve come a long way since 2013 when we began the funding, permitting, design and development of this project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Genomics revealed the genetic value that Willa could bring to her species,” said Ryan Phelan, Revive & Restore Executive Director. “But 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.”
In 2018, the Service issued the first-ever recovery permit for cloning research of an endangered species, allowing Revive & Restore to initiate genetic analyses and proof of concept trials. This work builds upon recent advancements in cloning processes developed by ViaGen Pets & Equine, which successfully created embryos from the frozen cell line and implanted them into a domestic ferret surrogate.
“The ability to utilize our proven Somatic Cell Nuclear Technology to enable the cloning of such an ecologically important species is a great privilege,” said ViaGen Pets and Equine President Blake Russell.
The surrogate mother was transferred from ViaGen Pets & Equine to the Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (NBFFCC) mid-gestation to give birth to the cloned kit under the Service’s authority. The NBFFCC staff’s extensive experience breeding and caring for black-footed ferrets ensured the safe arrival of the first U.S. endangered species clone. This research is still in the early stages, and researchers continue to closely monitor the young kit for viability and other developments. Elizabeth Ann and her surrogate mother are kept separate from other breeding black-footed ferrets, and she will live her life at the NBFFCC as additional research is completed. The team is working to produce more black-footed ferret clones in the coming months as part of continuing research efforts.
Revive and Restore are researching bringing back the Wooly Mammoth to save the tundra by recreating the Pleistocene epoch to keep invasive plants emerging. The plants darken the surface of the tundra allowing more sun and heat to hit the surface. These plant’s roots also feature the permafrost allowing more heat to enter the soil subsurface. Herds’ hooves trampling the frozen soil will keep it in its natural state to prevent methane release from thawing permafrost.