By Kate Powell
As more and more animals share the increasingly ubiquitous title of “endangered species,” the birth of Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret, and the first ever North American endangered species to be cloned, brings new hope for conversation efforts worldwide.
Elizabeth Ann was born on Dec 10th, 2020, in a breeding facility located in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her birth is an achievement for scientists everywhere, proving that cloning can bring resounding changes to the future of endangered species.
But Elizabeth Ann isn’t the first endangered species to be cloned. Last summer, Kurt, a cloned Przewalski’s horse, or Mongolian wild horse, was born in Texas through the affiliation of ViaGen Pets & Equine, Revive & Restore, and San Diego Zoo Global. This same trio, together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, collaborated to clone a black-footed ferret from the cells of one that died over 30 years before.
Black-footed ferrets have been critically endangered since the 1970s, when they were thought to be extinct due to the extermination of their staple food source: prairie dogs. A revelation occured in 1981, when a ranch dog hauled a dead black-footed ferret onto its owner’s front porch. The discovery of an existing ferret population was wildly reassuring, and scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service successfully caught the surviving 18 ferrets. Of those captured, only seven were able to pass their genetic information on to their kits. But the ensuing offspring lacked the genetic diversity sufficient to keep the species afloat. The birth of Elizabeth Ann has changed that.
The process of her geniture began in 1980, when Dr. Ryder, Director of Conservation Genetics at San Diego Zoo Global, inquired of Tom Thorne from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, whether he could attain skin samples from black-footed ferrets. In 1985 and 1988, Dr. Ryder obtained the samples, which he stored at the Frozen Zoo, a facility housing 1,100 unique animal species’ cells in significantly below freezing temperatures.
Willa, one of the black-footed ferret samples that arrived in 1988, was unique in her genetic diversity, making her an ideal specimen for cloning. By 2018, Revive & Restore, a non profit company researching biotechnology, was granted a permit for cloning research. They collaborated with ViaGen Pets & Equine, a company that clones household pets for thousands of dollars, to execute the cloning procedure. In fall of 2020, the Willa’s cell culture was transferred to ViaGen laboratories in New York, where it was developed into embryos. Months later, Elizabeth Ann was born.
Elizabeth Ann is soon to have sisters as well as potential mates, cloned from another black-footed ferret sample in the Frozen Zoo. Elizabeth Ann’s grandchildren or even great-grandchildren are expected to be born as early as 2024 or 2025.
The cloning of Elizabeth Ann further demonstrates the importance of cloning for the conservation of endangered species. The potential to restore the black-ferret population is now attainable, as is the potential to attack more demanding conservation efforts through cloning. Ryan Phelan, Co-founder and Executive Director of Revive & Restore, sees it this way: “How can we actually apply some of those advances in science for conservation? Because conservation needs more tools in the toolbox. That’s our whole motivation. Cloning is just one of the tools.”