The wonders of modern technology mean that scientists are able to create clones of living things using a range of processes. The end result is a specimen that is the exact replica of the biological entity it was created from, sharing its genetic code to the letter. In the past, scientists have cloned everything from cells and tissues to entire complex organisms like Dolly the sheep.
The conservation project is a collaboration between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and scientists at Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It aims to overcome genetic obstacles currently hampering efforts to restore the population of Black-footed ferrets, whose future is at risk if there isn’t enough genetic diversity left in the pool of survivors. Expanding the gene pool with a clone from a deceased animal reduces the risk of inbreeding-associated health problems which are often seen in “pure-bred” dogs or offspring born from incest, which usually only happens among mammals when there are no other mates to choose from.
It might sound like something off a Sci-Fi movie set, but when you consider that all existing Black-footed ferrets are descended from just seven individuals, it starts to make sense. Willa, the animal Elizabeth Ann was created from, was selected as she was one of the last Black-footed ferrets caught in the wild. Crucially, her lineage sits outside of the seven “founding ferrets” of the world’s remaining Black-footed ferrets, so Willa’s DNA represented a big opportunity to return some diversity to the Black-footed ferret gene pool.
Cloning alone won’t revive the species, but the intention is to grow the project in tandem with ongoing efforts to stabilize wild populations by restoring and increasing suitable habitats for these animals.
“The Service sought the expertise of valued recovery partners to help us explore how we might overcome genetic limitations hampering recovery of the black-footed ferret, and we’re proud to make this announcement today,” said Noreen Walsh in a press release emailed to IFLScience. Walsh is Director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, where the Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center is located. “Although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America, and it provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret.”