New Cloning Technology Offers Hope for Endangered Species
by Allison Torres, age 13
A new black-footed ferret came into this world on December 10th, 2020. This newborn ferret is named Elizabeth Ann, and she has grown up with lots of energy and curiosity. What Elizabeth Ann doesn’t know is that she could be the key to saving her entire species. This is because her species, the Black-footed ferret, is one of the most endangered animals in North America.
A long time ago, black-footed ferrets lived in many wild areas across North America. When Europeans arrived in areas where ferrets were living they disturbed the natural environment and the food sources ferrets need to survive. This caused the population of black-footed ferrets to rapidly decline. By the late 1970s, the species was thought to be extinct.
Then in 1981, two years after the species was declared extinct, there was “an electrifying announcement.” A Wyoming farmer found a small but thriving community of wild black-footed ferrets.
A genetics expert at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in California, Oliver Ryder, planned to begin a captive-breeding program. The goal wass to save this species. This new program called “The captive-breeding ferrets” was challenging because human activity still threatened the ferrets. Over time, scientists have been able to reintroduce wild ferrets to Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, and Mexico. Scientists also made a vaccine for a “plague” that put the species at risk of a disease that spreads quickly among animals like ferrets. Now, the wild population numbers are around 350, with around 300 more living in captivity.
The black-footed ferret known as Elizabeth Ann, is a clone of Willa. Willa is one of the ferrets whose cells were preserved by scientists from 1986 to 2020.
In the cloning process, experts removed the entire “nucleus” or the middle part of Willa’s cells. This middle part of Willa contains genes that are similar for a recipe to create an animal identical to Willa. Scientists also took egg cells from a domestic ferret. The cloning of Elizabeth Ann is a big accomplishment in the scientific world. It demonstrates that it is possible for DNA from an animal that died many years ago to live again. And it is a big step forward in cloning technology.
Meanwhile, scientists continue to collect cells from as many animals as possible. Scientists think that this work is important because “we love the world we live in and we want to protect it.”
[Sources: Science News for Students; National Geographic]