Scientists Have Cloned a Black-footed Ferret Using 30-Year-Old Cells

Scientists have just successfully cloned a domestic endangered species in the United States for the first time. Hoping to integrate genetic diversity so as to sustain and grow the current black-footed ferret population, the scientists turned to the cells of a ferret that died over 30 years ago.

The Black-footed Ferret: A Brief History

The black-footed ferret, so named for the black markings on their otherwise tan bodies, have faced a severe 20th century decline in population. Though the carnivorous animals may choose to eat any small rodents from mice to squirrels, the prairie dog is the primary element of their diet and is therefore essential for their survival. Farmers and ranchers, with assistance from the government, eradicated and eliminated prairie dogs from their fields due to the destructive nature of their underground tunnels and homes. This had the adverse effect of drastically shrinking the population of the black-footed ferrets to the point where they were thought to be extinct by the 1970s.

a newborn ferret being held in a gloved hand
Photo: Facebook/National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center

However, a silver lining shone through in 1981 when a ranch dog led a group of scientists directly to a small population of 18 black-footed ferrets. All 18 animals were collected and used in a breeding program managed in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado. Although the breeding program had some success, only seven of the 18 ferrets bred, leaving the current 400 to 500 wild black-footed ferrets very closely related. That’s when scientists decided the ferret population would need genetic diversity in order to survive and thrive on their own, and thus Elizabeth Ann was born.

Finding the Right Mom

In the mid-1980s, one of the original 18 black-footed ferrets named Willa died, leaving behind no related descendants. Her cells were cryopreserved at the Frozen Zoo, a program run through San Diego Zoo Global that has collected samples from 1,100 endangered and rare species from across the globe.

a female ferret lays down as countless newborn ferrets feed from her, one of which is clone Elizabeth Ann
Photo: Facebook/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An amalgamation of the frozen cells from Willa, and the eggs from a living domestic ferret, created baby Elizabeth Ann. The success of this cloning was due to the combined efforts of ViaGen Pets and Equine, a private pet cloning company, the Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego Zoo Global, and biotech conservation group Revive and Restore.

“We’re pretty excited — more along the lines of ecstatic,” says Shawn Walker, chief scientific officer with ViaGen. The hope is to eventually breed Elizabeth Ann and introduce her offspring into the wild, allowing large genetic diversification in the black-footed ferret population.

Making a Clone

Although it may sound like a plot straight out of a sci-fi novel, there have been several successful animal clonings over the years, including Dolly the sheep in Scotland and two macaques monkeys in China. By using eggs from domestic ferrets, which are a closely related species, the scientists were able to limit any risk to the already endangered black-footed females. Once the eggs were matured, scientists at ViaGen removed the nucleus and genetic materials and transferred the preserved cells from Willa to the eggs.

Scientists then gave the eggs an “activation stimulus,” which is essentially an electric shock that helps the cells divide. The successful cell division created embryos, which were then implanted back into the domestic female. In this case, only one embryo survived the implantation, creating Elizabeth Ann.

clone black-footed ferret Elizabeth Ann sticks half her body out of a hole and stares at the camera
Photo: Facebook/Revive & Restore

All recent tests show that Elizabeth Ann is healthy, and scientists hope to have her grandkids or even great-grandkids introduced into the wild by 2025, according to Ben Novak, scientist with Revive and Restore. Oliver Ryder, San Diego Zoo’s director of conservation genetics, added, “Broadening the gene pool seems like a tremendous opportunity to help assure the long-term sustainability of the species.”

To follow along as Elizabeth Ann grows up, and to see the rest of the black-footed ferrets currently part of the conservation program, be sure to check out the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center’s Facebook page!

Watch below as Elizabeth Ann plays with her domestic siblings and her surrogate mom!

Elizabeth Ann Plays with Others

Happy Ferret Friday Folks!BFF Clone Elizabeth Ann plays with her domestic siblings and surrogate mom.Video Credit: FCC Staff

Posted by National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center on Friday, February 19, 2021

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