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Elizabeth Ann Is the First Cloned Black-Footed Ferret

The creature, the first cloned endangered species native to North America, could provide the fragile population with desperately needed genetic diversity

Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and the first cloned endangered species native to North America, pictured here at 50 days old. (USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center)
smithsonianmag.com

Scientists have successfully cloned a wild black-footed ferret that died more than 30 years ago, according to a statement from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The young clone, born December 10, 2020 and named Elizabeth Ann, is the first ever native endangered species to be cloned in the United States, reports Douglas Main for National Geographic.

Once thought to be globally extinct, black-footed ferrets are one of North America’s rarest land animals, clinging to the hem of existence through painstaking captive breeding and reintroduction programs. With her unique DNA, Elizabeth Ann has the potential to be a source of much-needed genetic diversity to the inbred reintroduced population, which currently hovers between 400 and 500 individuals and remains severely threatened by disease.

The long, slender bodied Black-footed ferret once hunted prairie dogs across the grasslands of the American West. The ferrets so depend on prairie dogs as a food source that when farmers and ranchers began poisoning and exterminating the rodents in droves, the ferret population crashed. Black-footed ferrets became so scarce that they were assumed extinct by the mid-1970s, reports Sabrina Imbler for the New York Times. But in 1981, a ranch dog in Wyoming dropped what turned out to be a freshly killed black-footed ferret on its owner’s porch, revealing a tiny relict population and forestalling oblivion for the species.

All black-footed ferrets alive today are the genetic descendants of just seven animals out of a group of 18 taken from that Wyoming ranch when the colony’s numbers started to dwindle. That is, except for Elizabeth Ann.

“This cloned individual has no living descendants in the population,” says Paul Marinari, who leads the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s black-footed ferret program, tells 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.”

Added genetic diversity could help protect the population from diseases such as sylvatic plague and canine distemper that periodically slash its numbers, reports Mead Gruver for the Associated Press.

The effort that eventually produced Elizabeth Ann began in the 1980s when Oliver Ryder, the director of conservation genetics at San Diego Zoo Global, asked Tom Thorne of Wyoming Game and Fish if he would send tissue samples from black-footed ferrets to be preserved in the Zoo’s burgeoning Frozen Zoo, per the Times. The Frozen Zoo now boasts a collection of cryogenically frozen tissues representing 1,100 species. In 1988, samples belonging to a ferret named Willa arrived in San Diego.

Beginning in 2013, USFWS partnered with conservation biotechnology nonprofit Revive & Restore, which culminated in 2018 with the organization’s approved permit to research cloning the black-footed ferret.

To clone Willa, that is, to create a new living animal by copying her genes, Revive & Restore worked with Viagen, a company that clones pets and that successfully cloned the endangered Przewalski’s horse of Mongolia last summer, per the AP. Finally, in late 2020, Elizabeth Ann was born to a domestic ferret, along with two unrelated domestic kits and a second clone that did not survive, to avoid putting a precious, wild black-footed ferret at risk.

Now, Elizabeth Ann lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been certified to be 100 percent black-footed ferret by blood tests. Her behavior is normal so far, but she will be closely monitored for her whole life.

Marinari says additional cloning is planned for the coming months. First, they need to search the cryo-banks of frozen black-footed ferret semen and living male ferrets for the best genetic mates for Elizabeth Ann. Per National Geographic, if everything goes according to plan, her grandkids or great-grandkids might be born by 2024 or 2025.

“It will be a slow, methodical process,” Samantha Wisely, a conservation geneticist at the University of Florida, tells the Times. “We need to make absolutely sure that we’re not endangering the genetic lineage of black-footed ferrets by introducing this individual.”

Ultimately, cloning’s potential to turn back the genetic clock for species teetering on the brink like the black-footed ferret rests on Ryder’s choice to preserve its tissues in the first place.

“The foresight that Wyoming Game and Fish and the San Diego Zoo had back in the 80s is tremendous,” says Marinari. “There wasn’t much indication this would be possible—it would have been like trying to predict the smartphone. It goes to show that we need to continue trying to collect and preserve these biomaterials.”

But cloning isn’t a conservation panacea, says Kristy Bly, a senior biologist with the World Wildlife Fund who has worked extensively on black-footed ferret recovery, to Smithsonian magazine via email.

“The successful cloning effort of Elizabeth Ann is another landmark of firsts… that will ultimately contribute to its long-term persistence,” says Bly. “To achieve recovery, however, this scientific advance must be accompanied by a dogged commitment to conserving and increasing existing black-footed ferret populations in the wild.”

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