Scientists have cloned the first endangered American species, a black-footed ferret duplicated from the genes of an animal that died more than 30 years ago.
The slender predator, named Elizabeth Ann, was born in a central Colorado on December 10 and was announced on Thursday.
Elizabeth Ann is a genetic copy of a ferret named Willa who died in 1988 and whose remains were frozen in the early days of DNA technology. They were kept in the “global frozen zoo” in San Diego, which houses samples of species from all over the planet.
The black-legged ferret community was believed to be extinct but a small clan of a handful of specimens was discovered. The US Federal Fish and Wildlife Service – which has coordinated the cloning operation – reintroduced them into the wild but they were all descendants of just seven survivors.
Now there are about 500 *, but all descendants of the seven “founders”, so they are only reproducing “between brothers”. The goal is to try to add genetic richness to the species.
Viagen, a company that clones horses and companion dogs and cats, cloned both animals.
In a world threatened by biodiversity loss, the technique may look promising for empowering endangered species, like a cloned Mongolian wild horse that was born in a Texas facility last summer.
However, for some scientists and conservationists, cloning endangered or even extinct species presents some ethical problems. In the first place, because it will not solve the problems that have caused the species to reach this extreme situation.
The federal service in charge of the operation recognizes that cloning is not a solution in itself. “Maintaining and increasing wild populations and suitable habitat remains essential to the recovery of the black-footed ferret and will continue to be a priority for the Service,” commented Noreen Walsh, Service Mountain and Prairie Region Director. “The success of genetic cloning does not diminish the importance of addressing habitat-based threats to the species or the Service’s approach to addressing habitat conservation and management to recover black-footed ferrets.”
Why aren’t more cloning of endangered species being done?
Ana Josefa Soler Valls, expert in animal reproduction and biotechnology and professor at the University of Castilla la Mancha, considers that the priority is to avoid reaching these extremes.
He celebrates the initiative, which in this case is an option to give greater genetic variability to this species in extreme situation. “Now when they cross naturally, the variability will increase and the effects of consanguinity may be attenuated”, explains Soler Valls.
It recognizes that conservation actions have to be comprehensive “you cannot be recovering species with assisted reproduction techniques if later it is not also accompanied by a long-term project of conservation of those species in their habitat, with actions to make it sustainable. In situ conservation and ex situ conservation are necessary (with assisted reproduction techniques or in zoos) but they have to go hand in hand “, says the teacher.
Most experts consider it absurd to clone long-extinct species Soler Valls recalls that “they tried to clone mammoths. When we saw that news, we all thought that even their environment was not going to be adapted. It was an attempt but it did not succeed.”
Since the cloning of the famous Dolly the sheep, the technique has become relatively common. One of its main current uses is the cloning of pets and domestic animals.
However, applying the technique to wild animals is another matter. The technique is not sufficiently sophisticated and many failures are often encountered before cloning is achieved. Furthermore, little is known about the reproductive cycles of these animals.
Soler Valls cites the case of the bucardo, the Pyrenean goat. “There were only three specimens left and the last one died because a tree fell on it. French scientists from INRA came, extracted somatic cells from the corpse and cloned it in an oocyte of a Hispanic goat. However, although they are very close species, it did not work because the The length of gestation was different. Individuals were born, but did not survive. “
He also gives the example of the Iberian lynx, which has an assisted reproduction line to support them because their natural habitat is very limited. “They are very competitive animals that need large spaces and have less and less.” Conservation in laboratories goes hand in hand with caring for the habitat.
“A species is not extinct from one day to the next. There is a lot of fear, many security protocols to work with these species, this happens with the Iberian lynx. There is a paralysis and when you want to realize it, the species is gone. , without having done enough to prevent it. ”
* News corrected. Due to a misinterpretation, we initially stated that there are only seven copies left today.