Willy, an endangered black-footed ferret who died 30 years ago has been successfully cloned in what scientists have described as a ‘milestone ushering in a new era in the conservation of endangered animals’.
In a typical reproductive cloning, mature somatic cells, such as the skin cell of an animal, is extracted and then conveyed into an oocyte or egg cell whose DNA has been removed — particularly DNA with a nucleus. The outcome of this is referred to as a clone.
In Willy’s case, its frozen cells were used to create Elizabeth Anne, its clone whom scientists have projected will go on to mate, reproduce, and ultimately redeem her species that is fast going into extinction.
The black-footed ferret is one of America’s most endangered species and was first pronounced extinct in the year 1979.
However, a small population of the species were discovered a couple of years later in Wyoming, and, since then, scientists have established a breeding program to help the species survive.
Known to be a very fragile species, efforts were quickly made in August last year to administer an experimental covid-19 vaccine to around 120 black-footed ferrets amid the coronavirus outbreak. This was a precautious move to save the animals from being killed by the virus.
According to CNN, Elizabeth Anne was delivered in December by a surrogate ferret mother. By and large, her arrival gives hope to the future of black-footed ferrets, and scientists have projected that her unique origins will help diversify her species.
One of the factors that make the black-footed ferret an endangered species is that all surviving ones descended from the same seven animals.
What this points to is that, due to the absence of enough genetic diversity, the animals are more susceptible to carrying diseases due to a weak immune system.
In a statement given by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), “A species is at an increased risk of diseases and genetic abnormalities if it is without an appropriate amount of genetic diversity.”
“The commitment to saving this special species from extinction contributed greatly to the successful birth of the clone, Elizabeth Anne,” they added.
Additional footage of the lovely Elizabeth Anne. 🙂 pic.twitter.com/fz7HnwyI1F
— US Fish and Wildlife (@USFWSMtnPrairie) February 18, 2021
Albeit a lot of animals have been cloned in the past — from Pyrenean Ibex to artic wolf, coyote to house mouse, and gaur to fruit flies — the clone made with Willy’s frozen cells is the first done as a collective effort to ensure the survival of an endangered species.
Although not many countries condone cloning as the US does, largely because of the fear that clones are likely to suffer serious health problems, Elizabeth has proven to be up and running.
“To see her now thriving has heightened the hope we have on her species, as well as conservation-dependent species everywhere.
She is a big win for genetic rescue and biodiversity,” said the agency, FWS.
The successful birth of Elizabeth Anne has evoked the first mammal to ever be cloned from the cells of an adult, that is Dolly the Sheep from far back as 1996.
Since then, a lot of animals have been cloned, but the full potentials of cloning and the likely drawbacks involved are yet to be unravelled fully.
Finally, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have decided that they won’t release Anne into the wild; they will rather have their specialists provide her with care and study her at one of their facilities situated in Colorado.
Therefore, they are looking to leverage the discoveries made from the study to produce more ferret clones in the coming months.
Around 300 ferrets are currently living in captivity, many of which are kept at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Centre.
This is the same facility where Elizabeth Anne was born. Stats also reveal that another 400 ferrets have been released into the wild before then.