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Scientists use cloning technology to revive endangered species: 'Conservationists have worked very hard to bring them back'

"It's basically the raw material of adaptive evolution."

"It's basically the raw material of adaptive evolution."

Photo Credit: iStock

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biotechnology nonprofit Revive & Restore, and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance are collaborating to revive the black-footed ferret population using cloning technology that produced two new offspring last year.

The FWS announced on April 17 that the ferrets, named Noreen and Antonia, were born last May using cells frozen almost 40 years ago. 

According to the Washington Post, just seven ferrets are responsible for the entire wild population, leading to a genetic homogeneity that could spell doom for a species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers endangered.

"Genetic diversity is critical for resilience to environmental change," said Megan Owen, vice president of conservation science at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. "It's basically the raw material of adaptive evolution."

The Post noted that around a million black-footed ferrets roamed the Great Plains before the agriculture industry, disease, and the decline of their prey decimated their numbers.

Experts believed they went extinct, only for them to resurface just two years later. FWS officials used that opportunity to bring several into captivity to facilitate breeding.

"Conservationists have worked very hard to bring them back," Revive & Restore's lead scientist Ben Novak said. "They're doing a very good job. But due to that historic bottleneck in the '80s for black-footed ferrets, they just have an extremely limited gene pool."

Scientists collected cells from one of the captured ferrets, Willa, in 1988 and had them frozen at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Some of the genetic material was used to create a clone named Elizabeth Ann in 2020.

However, she rebuffed several potential mates and had complications with her uterus, which required a hysterectomy. Elizabeth Ann is still alive, and officials believe that while she can't give birth, her reproductive issues weren't a byproduct of the cloning process since it's a naturally occurring condition. 

Noreen and Antonia serve as the second attempt using Willa's cells, which were injected into a domesticated ferret's egg to create the clones. 

The researchers don't plan to reintroduce the cloned ferrets into the wild, but some conservationists have released them back into their natural habitat. Additionally, the hope is that Noreen and Antonia can produce viable descendants later this year to increase their population.

The FWS and Revive & Restore have also partnered to preserve a biobank of blood, tissue, and reproductive cell samples from at-risk species using cryogenic technology. Experts from Taiwan have used similar tactics to potentially repopulate coral reefs.

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