FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – A ferret named "Elizabeth Ann" in Northern Colorado is the first endangered animal native to the United States to be cloned. Elizabeth Ann, a Black-Footed Ferret, is an identical twin to its twin sister, "Willa," who died more than 30 years ago.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cloned the ferret in an effort to expand the diversity of genes among the few remaining Black-Footed ferrets.
"It takes extraordinary efforts to put humpty dumpty back together once you let him fall off the wall and get cracked," said Pete Gober, the lead researcher on the project.
Elizabeth Ann was cloned using DNA from Willa that has been frozen in the San Diego Zoo for more than 30 years. DNA from Willa was placed in to a surrogate's embryo in a New York laboratory. Then the surrogate was brought to Colorado where the National Black-Footed Ferret Center is established near Fort Collins.
"That kit was born on December the 10th," Gober said.
Gober told CBS4's Dillon Thomas that all remaining Black-Footed ferrets are decedents of the same seven ferrets which were taken in to captivity decades ago. Because of their similar genes they are more susceptible to falling victim to one disease.
"We are concerned about the limited genetic variability within the species," Gober said. "Getting an eighth animal through a cloning effort could be a big accomplishment."
Researchers hope introducing Elizabeth Ann's genes in to the breeding process will help strengthen the viability of the species going forward. Eventually researchers hope to study the genes in the ferrets in order to strengthen them and eventually protect them from unexpected diseases to come.
Gober said cloning the ferrets isn't humans trying to play God with creation. He said humans have indirectly caused the Black-Footed ferrets to deplete over the years. Many factors in the past 500 years have played a role, one being humans developing lands where the ferrets were living.
Ferrets hunt prairie dogs, and humans have rid of many prairie dog colonies in order to build homes and other buildings. Doing so slowly eliminated the natural landscape which the ferrets used to survive.
Elizabeth Ann isn't the first animal to be cloned. Scientists have cloned sheep, horses, cows and more over the years. However, this was the first time researchers had ever cloned an endangered U.S. species.
Elizabeth Ann can go through the breeding process as soon as this year. While ferrets like Elizabeth Ann tend to only live for one-to-three years in the wild, they can live up to eight years in captivity.
Gober said it likely wouldn't be until after 2026 that Elizabeth Ann's offspring are potentially released in to the wild.
"Cloning like this allows you to freeze time to a certain extent," Gober said.
for more features.