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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Sunday May 19, 2024
Sunday May 19, 2024

Cloning success: Three black-footed ferrets created to boost endangered species conservation

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New advancements in cloning technology are playing a pivotal role in preserving the genetic diversity of the endangered black-footed ferret.

In a groundbreaking conservation effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced the successful cloning of two additional black-footed ferrets, Noreen and Antonia, bringing the total to three individuals cloned from the same genetic source. This milestone is part of a broader strategy to increase the genetic diversity and resilience of this species, which has faced near extinction.

The cloning initiative began with Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and the first cloned U.S. endangered species, born in 2021. While Elizabeth Ann faced challenges in breeding due to reproductive issues not associated with her cloned status, the focus has now shifted to her genetic siblings, Noreen and Antonia. These new clones share their DNA with Willa, one of the original seven ferrets that constituted the last known wild members of their species.

In the early 1980s, a dramatic turn of events led to the rediscovery of black-footed ferrets in Wyoming when a ranch dog brought a dead ferret home. This discovery spurred immediate conservation actions, including the capture of seven individuals who became the founders of a captive breeding program. The current population of black-footed ferrets, now reintroduced across several regions in North America, are all descendants of these seven, highlighting a critical bottleneck in genetic diversity.

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Willa’s remains were preserved and stored at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Frozen Zoo, proving invaluable for these cloning efforts. Her genetic makeup contains approximately three times more unique genetic variations than what is found in the current ferret population. By leveraging these genes, conservationists hope to introduce a broader genetic base into the ferret population, enhancing their resilience to disease and environmental changes.

The biologists involved plan to commence breeding trials with Noreen and Antonia once they reach maturity later this year. The births, which occurred last May, were not announced immediately as the team prioritized scientific rigour and ongoing conservation priorities, according to Joe Szuszwalak, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cloning, which involves creating a new plant or animal from the genes of an existing one, was facilitated through collaboration between the Fish and Wildlife Service, various zoo and conservation organizations, and ViaGen Pets & Equine, a company that also has experience cloning horses and domestic pets.

This scientific achievement not only underscores the potential of cloning in wildlife conservation but also poses important ethical and ecological questions about the role of biotechnology in preserving endangered species. As these cloned ferrets grow and potentially contribute to their species’ gene pool, they will serve as important test cases for the feasibility of cloning as a tool for conservation.

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