Last year, Ben Novak drove across the country to catch New Year’s Eve with a black-footed ferret. Elizabeth Ann just turned 21 days old – certainly a milestone for any weasel but a particularly significant one for Elizabeth Ann, the first of any native animal species, to have Endangered in North America is mirrored.
Mr. Novak, lead scientist at the biotech nonprofit Revive & Restore, bought a rickshaw to transport his wife and identical twins from North Carolina to the Mink Conservation Center. Country Black Near Fort Collins, Colo. (They made a stop pit in Texas to see Kurt, the first Przewalski cloned horse.)
Mr. Novak spent less than 15 minutes with Elizabeth Ann, whose black mask, legs and tail had just begun to show through her dewy white fur. “It feels like time has stopped,” Mr. Novak said.
Thankfully, time hasn’t stopped for Elizabeth Ann, who now looks significantly bigger, browner and more like a ferret. Her clone of success was the culmination of years-long collaborations with US Fish and Wildlife Service, Revive & Restore, for-profit company ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association. Zoos and Aquariums.
Clone siblings are on the way and potential (human) partners are lining up. If successful, the project could provide the necessary genetic diversity for endangered species. And it marks another promising step in a broader effort to use cloning to take a growing number of species off the brink of extinction.
Black-footed ferret, the first species to be reintroduced to old habitats with the help of artificial insemination, has long been a showcase for new conservation technologies. So it is fitting that the ferret has become the second species to be cloned for this kind of genetic rescue. (Elizabeth Ann followed in the footsteps of Kurt’s horse.)
“Pinch me away,” Oliver Ryder, director of conservation genetics at San Diego Zoo Global, joked on the call from Zoom. “These mammalian cells in 1988 became an animal.”
History of mink
In the early 1900s, black-footed ferrets were burrowing throughout the western United States, according to Pete Gober, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s national mink restoration coordinator. But the weasels disappeared after their main food source, prairie dogs, was nearly wiped out from poisoning, disease and habitat loss. “We think they’re gone,” said Dr. Gober.
The breed was thought to be extinct in the wild until 1981, when a farm dog named Shep released a dead black-footed ferret on the porch near Meeteetse, Wyo. keep a newly killed extinct species, and warn the Wyoming Fish and Games Division.
The newly discovered population thrived in a few years but was nearly eradicated by the canine plague and plague, a disease caused by the same bacteria that causes plague in humans. The Fish and Wildlife Agency captured the remaining 18 weasels, but only 7 of them transmit their genes, leaving a population with limited genetic diversity, susceptible to pathogens or tangles. Health disorders due to inbreeding. All the black-footed weasels that live today are basically half brothers – except for Elizabeth Ann.
The path of cloning a black-footed ferret began in the 1980s, at a conservation biology conference. Dr. Ryder, a geneticist at the San Diego Zoo, happened to share a banquet table with Tom Thorne, who works at the Wyoming Fish and Games Room. Grasping the moment, Dr. Ryder asks Dr. Thorne if he would consider submitting a skin biopsy from black-footed weasels to the Frozen Zoo, a growing collection of cold-preserved animal tissue samples. “I told him we didn’t know what they could be used for,” said Dr. Ryder. “I don’t recall a resounding agreement.”
On October 23, 1985, Dr. Ryder unexpectedly received a box from Wyoming. “Well, sausages, we have black-footed weasels,” he recalled.
Dr. Ryder’s lab received more samples in 1988, one from a weasel named Willa caught in the wild. Willa had children, but they died; By black-footed ferret standards, she’s full of genetic diversity potential. Frozen Zoo established the cell culture method from Willa and stored it in their giant freezer, which houses cells from 1,100 different animal species, including a great Hawaiian honey bee. strain and vaquita, a highly endangered dolphin species, at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 2013, Fish and Wildlife Service approached Revive & Restore to explore how biotechnology, a nonprofit that evolves in pursuit of species extinction, can help increase diversity. Genetic form of black-footed ferret. The following year, Revive & Restore decoded the genomes of four black-footed ferrets.
The first is Balboa, who was born by artificial insemination using cold-preserved, genetically diverse sperm. The second is Cheerio, who was born naturally and shared ancestors from all seven founders; Novak calls him “all weasels”. The last two weasels were obtained from tissue samples at Frozen Zoo, a male named “Studbook Number 2” and a female named Willa. “When we look at Balboa, we see from an experimental standpoint that a lot of genetic diversity has been saved by going back to the past,” Novak said.
Revive & Restore designed a proposal and submitted it to Fish and Wildlife. In 2018, this nonprofit received the first license to research to clone an endangered species. Revive & Restore partnered with commercial cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine to design the cloning process.
The first test started around Halloween. Frozen Zoo sent Willa’s frozen-preserved cell line to ViaGen’s lab in New York. ViaGen creates embryos and implants them in a water weasel. On day 14, ultrasound confirmed heart rate.
The surrogate was transferred to the conservation center and monitored 24/24 to find signs of labor. On December 10, Elizabeth Ann was transferred to the C-section. “Our pretty little replica,” said Mr. Novak.
On the 65th day of Elizabeth Ann’s life, technicians took blood, picked her cheeks, and sent samples to Samantha Wisely, a conservation geneticist at the University of Florida, who confirmed that Elizabeth Ann was black-footed ferret.
Elizabeth Ann will spend her days at the conservation center, soon joining her sisters (other copies of Willa) and potential mates (clone of Studbook Number 2). Researchers will monitor their health and watch them grow and search in artificial caves inside their cages, Dr. Gober said. When the clones reach sexual maturity, they reproduce, and their offspring will then be crossed with wild black-footed ferrets to ensure that there is no residual mitochondrial DNA left from the surrogate mother.
“It will be a slow and methodical process,” said Dr. Wisely, who is working on an article on the bioethics of human cloning. “We need to fully ensure that we do not endanger the black-footed ferret genus by introducing this individual.”
Dr. Ryder says that a pandemic can slow things down. But if all goes according to plan, the clones’ diverse genome could help protect black-footed ferrets against their own plague: not only canine plague and plague, but also even SARS-CoV-2, which is highly contagious among weasels, a close relative of weasels. In the fall, 120 black-footed weasels were tested with an experimental Covid-19 vaccine.
Revive & Restore is still working on its moonshot projects, including the revival of passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths. Restoring these more exotic species will be a much more expensive, complex and controversial undertaking. Some conservationists argue that extinction financing will waste resources in an under-capitalized field amid the growing extinction crisis. In Novak’s eyes, any technology that could help bring mammoths back to life could aid in the recovery of already endangered species.
In Frozen Zoo, cells of long-dead creatures await their moment of resurrection in some way. “If technologies are developed in the future but no one can save any cells, that will be a lost opportunity,” said Dr. Ryder. “Now is the time to save these boxes.” Dr. Ryder’s lab has grown and re-frozen more Willa’s cells, replacing those that had become Elizabeth Ann.