May 11, 2021

Scientist Clone the First Endangered Species Using a 33-year-old DNA

Scientists have been able to clone the first U.S. endangered species, a black-footed ferret they named Elizabeth Ann, duplicated from the genes of an animal that died over 30 years ago. The original donner, named was named Willa. When Willa died, in 1988 the Wyoming Game and Fish Department sent her tissues to a “frozen zoo” run by San Diego Zoo Global that maintains cells from more than 1,100 species and subspecies worldwide.

Willa was not one of the original seven ancestors. Before those ferrets were found in 1981 on a ranch in the state of Wyoming, it was believed that the species had gone extinct forever.

                                                         Elizabeth Ann, the first ever cloned US endangered species at 50 days old. USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center

Willa’s body was frozen in the early stages of the DNA technology. For now, the technique holds promise for helping endangered species including a Mongolian wild horse that was cloned and last summer born at a Texas facility.

“Biotechnology and genomic data can really make a difference on the ground with conservation efforts,” said Ben Novak, lead scientist with Revive & Restore, a biotechnology-focused conservation nonprofit that coordinated the ferret and horse cloning.

Willa’s genes were fertilized into an embryo and then carried by a regular domestic ferret, who gave birth to Elizabeth Ann. A fellow black-footed ferret didn’t carry the embryo because of the regular risks associated with pregnancy. With the success of this procedure, animal conservators feel more confident about bringing back other specimens, including those that will require genetic patching or modification in order to even be successfully cloned.

                  Image credits: USFWSMtnPrairie

Elizabeth Ann will not be released in the wild. She’s being cared for at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Black Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado.