Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret, has become the first endangered animal to be cloned from the cells of a deceased ancestor. The implications of the cloning of Elizabeth Ann provides a future for species who have become endangered due to the human impact on their ecosystem among a plethora of other reasons. This scientific feat has created an avenue to rehabilitate endangered species throughout Earth’s environmental landscapes.
“Those ferrets are critically endangered, on the verge of going extinct, and it is a very small population,” said Associate Professor of Biology, Frank Fontanella. “Additionally, of the number of individuals that are there, the mass majority of them are genetically identical.
“There is not a lot of genetic variation within that population, so if you think about this genetic variation as a bell curve, the wider that bell curve is, the more variation there is,” continued Fontanella. “The more variation there is, the more we can change environmental habitats and have those populations at a point of survival.”
This need for genetic variation alludes to the significance of cloning Elizabeth Ann from frozen cells of an ancestor. Cloning a ferret from the past who is absent from this current allows for more diverse DNA to be inserted into the population and will increase the genetic diversity essential to a ferret’s survival.
“The population we have now is only derived from about seven or eight different ancestors, and the problem we begin to see is inbreeding,” said Fontanella. “As you increase inbreeding, you begin exchanging recessive traits and increase the frequency of these uncommon traits within a population.”
This example of Elizabeth Ann’s cloning was not only significant because she was the first endangered animal to be cloned, but because of the contribution to a different avenue of genetics. Rather than cloning an individual in order to complete the feat of cloning, this process was used to conserve and protect through the act of it.
“One of the reasons this was so revolutionary was because it was the first time cloning was applied to conservation genetics,” said Fontanella. “We took what was an endangered species that was really on the verge of extinction and were able to go back and grab individuals from 30 years ago that were not genetically similar to what we have now.
“However, cloning one individual is not going to save this population,” continued Fontanella. “But the fact that we can start that, get it done, and be successful means we have begun the exposure to genetic variation for the black-footed ferret.”
Although there are now the capabilities to not only increase population, but genetic diversity as well, there are still many more steps humans need to take. Endangered animal populations can be increased exponentially through cloning, but if there is no suitable environment for them to exist in, they will continue to be endangered.
“If there’s no place for these species to live and we’ve destroyed their habitat, putting endangered animals in ecosystems where they cannot flourish is essentially the equivalent of putting fish in a dry pond,” said Fontanella.
As seen in virtually all morally challenging scientific ventures, there will always be differing opinions on the purpose of such research. Fontanella says that there are objections in the science community as well as the public when it comes to the purpose and value of cloning endangered species.
“A lot of people are going to start seeing the benefits of keeping species from going extinct, but there’s also going to be a lot of people that are going to have objections to doing so,” said Fontanella. “Some people will complain about resources and how much we are spending, and while there is legitimacy to these concerns, if we are the ones driving these animals to extinction, we have a moral responsibility to try and stop it.”