Cloning technology may be a boon for endangered species

The future of the remaining black-footed ferrets in the world may have recently gotten a boost. Scientists have cloned a ferret that died in 1988, and they hope the clone will provide more genetic diversity to the small population of ferrets.

Don’t get your hopes up for a real-life version of Jurassic Park quite yet, but cloning is finding some practical applications in conservation of endangered species. In this case, it’s being used to provide more genetic diversity for black-footed ferrets.

As anyone who grew up in Wyoming knows, black-footed ferrets were thought to have been extinct by the 1970s, but in 1981, a dog named Shep trotted back to a Meeteetsee ranch house with one in his jaws. The ferrets were found and captured, and they became the focus of an intense captive breeding program. That program was largely successful, and ferrets began being released in the wild in the 1990s.

But there was a genetic bottleneck created by the small known population of ferrets. All the ferrets released since then have come from only seven individual ferrets. That leads to a high degree of genetic similarity among the animals alive today, and they’ve been found to be highly susceptible to certain parasites and diseases, such as sylvatic plague.

One female ferret, named Willa, died in 1988 and did not produce any offspring that reproduced. When she died, she was frozen and stored in the hope of scientific advances that could bring her genetics back to the population. And it appears that day may finally be here.

Willa’s clone, named Elizabeth Ann, was born on Dec. 10. She was carried by a surrogate mother, a domestic ferret, and she had a clone twin, but the twin didn’t make it. The scientists hope to make a few more clones, though.

It remains to be seen if Elizabeth Ann can make a difference for black-footed ferrets, but it’s exciting news for the conservation of this rare species.

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