FORT COLLINS, Colorado (CBS4) – A ferret named “Elizabeth Ann” in northern Colorado is the first endangered animal from the United States to be cloned. Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret, is a twin identical to her twin sister, “Willa”, who died over 30 years ago.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service cloned the ferret in an effort to expand gene diversity among the few remaining black-footed ferrets.
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“It takes extraordinary effort to put humpty dumpty back together once you drop it from the wall and crack,” said Pete Gober, the project’s principal investigator.
Elizabeth Ann was cloned using DNA from Willa which has been frozen in the San Diego Zoo for over 30 years. Willa’s DNA was placed in a surrogate embryo in a New York lab. Then the surrogate was brought to Colorado where the National Black-Footed Ferret Center is established near Fort Collins.
“This kit was born on December 10,” said Gober.
Gober told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas that all of the remaining blacklegged ferrets are dead from the same seven ferrets that were taken into captivity decades ago. Due to their similar genes, they are more likely to fall victim to disease.
“We are concerned about the limited genetic variability within the species,” Gober said. “Getting an eighth animal through a cloning effort could be a big achievement.”
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The researchers hope that introducing Elizabeth Ann’s genes into the breeding process will help boost the viability of the species in the future. Ultimately, researchers hope to study the genes in ferrets to strengthen them and possibly protect them against unexpected diseases to come.
Gober said ferret cloning is not about humans trying to play god with creation. He said humans have indirectly caused blacklegged ferrets to burn out over the years. Many factors over the past 500 years have played a role, one being humans developing land where ferrets lived.
Ferrets hunt prairie dogs, and humans have cleared many colonies of prairie dogs in order to build houses and other buildings. This slowly erased the natural landscape that ferrets used to survive.
Elizabeth Ann is not the first animal to be cloned. Scientists have cloned sheep, horses, cows and more over the years. However, it was the first time that researchers had cloned an endangered American species.
Elizabeth Ann can go through the selection process as early as this year. While ferrets like Elizabeth Ann tend to live only one to three years in the wild, they can live up to eight years in captivity.
Gober said it would likely not be until after 2026 that Elizabeth Ann’s offspring would potentially be released into the wild.
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“Cloning like this allows you to freeze time to a certain extent,” Gober said.