Optimism for endangered species rose with the successful cloning of an endangered black-footed ferret. The precious Elizabeth Ann, born on December 10, 2021, was cloned from the preserved cells of Willa, a fellow black-footed ferret who died in 1988. This remarkable feat comes 24 years after the first mammal, Dolly the Sheep, was cloned from an adult cell. Elizabeth Ann is the first endangered U.S. species to be cloned using the cells of a deceased ancestor.
Media like science-fiction movies portray an inaccurate picture of cloning and impede us from admiring the incredible procedures and scientific advancements required to produce such an organism. UTM Assistant Biology Professor Ted Erclik shares some valuable insight from his expertise in genetics and molecular biology to explain the possible implications of cloning on endangered species.
Cloning from adult cells first came about in 1958, when British biologist John Gurdon used skin cells from adult frogs to clone new frogs. Dolly the Sheep, an extraordinary scientific breakthrough, followed in 1997.
To simplify the concept of cloning, Professor Erclik explains, “You’re taking an unfertilized egg and taking out its nucleus, so the egg does not have any genetic material. We take nucleus from another animal and plant it into the enucleated (no nucleus) egg. Remarkably, the nucleus coming from another animal, is able to redirect the development of a whole new embryo when put into the egg.” In this case, Willa’s nucleus was transplanted into the enucleated egg of a domestic ferret who, despite being from a different species, successfully gave birth to Elizabeth Ann.
As a simple analogy, suppose you want to bake cookies. You prepare some dough and use some of it to bake a batch of cookies and freeze the rest. Three days later, you use the frozen dough to bake another batch of cookies. But here’s the catch. You use another oven to bake the second batch. Doing this, you have successfully cloned the cookies. Elizabeth Ann and Willa are cookies from the same dough, just baked some time apart in different ovens.
As such, Willa and Elizabeth Ann are exact genetic copies of each other. “Nothing is exact though,” clarifies Professor Erclik, “The environment plays a role in every developing animal, which means they might not be exactly the same.”
The success of cloning the black-footed ferret gives hope for the sustainability of endangered species. The valuable genes of endangered species, which would inevitably be lost after their death, can be preserved by reintroducing them back into a clone. Doing so will slowly increase the gene pools of endangered species, reverting them from extinction. Not only this but clones such as Elizabeth Ann, who arise from hybrid embryos, can take away the genetic load and introduce new and much-needed diversity into the species.
Yet, once the thrill from this advancement settles down, the question looms: is cloning a feasible and effective option for increasing the population of endangered species? Or is it just a grain of sand in the mountain of efforts required to protect these vulnerable organisms?
Identifying the reason for endangerment is imperative to ensure the survival of reintroduced cloned populations into their native habitats. The black-footed-ferrets went extinct due to habitat loss. These ferrets prey on prairie dogs, and as ranchers tried to eliminate colonies of these prairie dogs from their farms, they indirectly killed the ferrets who relied on them as a food source. “The prairie dogs are still not as abundant as they used to be,” says Professor Erclik as he addresses the issue, “What are the ferrets going to do once they are back in the wild?”
As such, simply reintroducing the lost population is not a practical solution. The cause of endangerment must be addressed first to ensure that the new population does not face the same grave risks as its predecessor.
Concerns circulating cloning also include the long-term consequences of being a clone. Cloned animals tend to have a shorter lifespan compared to their counterparts. Dolly the Sheep lived for six and a half years, which is relatively shorter than the life expectancy of a regular sheep, which is approximately 10 to 12 years. Professor Erclik explains the reason for this phenomenon, “You are taking preserved DNA from the nucleus of a deceased adult animal. That nucleus has already lived a long life. The DNA might have had UV damage, mutations from shortened telomeres and other damage.” Putting this unreliable DNA into the fresh egg of a surrogate ultimately impacts the animal’s fitness, consequently leading to health defects and an untimely premature death.
The emergence of cloning as a viable option for the protection of endangered animals may also overshadow the importance of conserving endangered animals. Significant breakthroughs with animals like Elizabeth Ann might be the first few steps on the path to saving endangered species, but cloning has still to prove its reliability. Albeit, protection of endangered species must be heavily prioritized with continually increasing efforts.
One might also ask, can cloning be used to bring back extinct species? “Not necessarily,” replies Professor Erclik. The unavailability of adult cells containing the genetic material of the extinct species and the trickiness of finding a compatible host egg for implantation are some of the complicated snags in the mindboggling phenomenon of de-extinction. So, you might not find yourself purchasing tickets to Jurassic Park just yet. However, the future of endangered species still holds a strong beacon of hope, in part due to the possibility of cloning. The case of Elizabeth Ann has opened many new avenues for species at risk of extinction. Ongoing research will bring forth other innovative techniques that will benefit endangered species. With a collection of efforts through diligent habitat conservation, public awareness, and ground-breaking scientific successes like cloning, the future of reintroducing endangered animals is adorned in positivity.