When I was younger, I would often take a trip down to the local pet store. They allowed customers to pet some of the animals. Among my favourites were the miniature mice who were constantly sleeping, an African Grey parrot, who tricked the staff by barking like a puppy and the ferrets, who were always acting busy. I begged my parents for a ferret, but, sadly, to no avail. So, when I heard that a black-footed ferret had been cloned, I was very interested.
Extinct?…Not so much
Black-footed ferrets are also known as prairie dog hunters or the American polecat and scientifically known as Mustela nigripes. They have had declining populations throughout the twentieth century. They generally subsist on prairie dogs, whose populations have also been on the decline throughout the same period. In 1979, scientists thought they were extinct until two years later when a Wyoming rancher found a small population on his farm. Interestingly, all 370 black-footed ferrets alive today descend from the seven found by the rancher! Considered one of the most endangered North American species, the black-footed ferret population has been hanging on the brink of survival. However, scientists wanted more – they wanted to bring back the ferret!
Here we go again!
On December 10th, 2020, “Elizabeth Ann” the black-footed ferret was born. Scientists cloned Elizabeth Ann from frozen cells taken from “Willa” a ferret who died over thirty years ago, making her the first endangered North American animal clone! The scientists who cloned Elizabeth Ann (which, I might add, is an adorable name for a ferret) hope to clone more ferrets soon. “Maintaining and increasing wild populations and suitable habitat continues to be essential for black-footed ferret recovery…” says Noreen Walsh, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, who first announced the successful cloning on February 18th, 2021. The team hopes that the cloning will support genetic diversity and even overcome disease resilience barriers!
So… what is cloning?
We know that scientists cloned Elizabeth Ann, but how, exactly? There are several different types of cloning: recombinant cloning, therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. The methods share similarities, but as scientists cloned Elizabeth Ann using reproductive cloning, let’s talk about that one. Reproductive cloning is how ’90s scientists cloned Dolly the Sheep.
Essentially, scientists place one cell’s nucleus into another egg. The egg has its DNA removed. This gives the egg new genetic material. An electrical current stimulates the egg, stimulating cell division and cell development. In Elizabeth Ann’s case, scientists recovered the dead ferret’s DNA and placed it inside the eggs of a surrogate ferret. The surrogate gave birth to Elizabeth Ann. Scientists believe this method may be useful in cloning other extinct animals, such as the woolly mammoth!
Where are we going?
Scientists aren’t clear as to what their next steps will be. It is likely they will keep testing and refining the cloning process. Looking further into the future, perhaps the cloning of bigger animals is on the horizon! Scientists are working at the moment to clone the woolly mammoth and bring it out of extinction, and who knows what other animals could be saved from endangerment or extinction?
It is very exciting to think about the endless possibilities for the cloning of extinct species (dinosaurs, the dodo bird). However, we must be careful about what effect this may have on the environment. As far as we know, habitats have evolved to become sustainable without these species alive. We don’t know what damage introducing hundreds or thousands of ferrets might do to the other species in that area. And, let’s be honest, we’ve seen the damage that bringing back dinosaurs could have in Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, it is exciting that science has evolved in such a way that we can now approach these problems and do some amazing things for our planet. However, even after all of this new and exciting research, I don’t think my parents will be convinced enough to let me get a ferret.
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