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Cloning Of Ferret Could Help Prevent Other Animals' Extinction

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I would like to introduce you to a very special ferret. Her name is Elizabeth Ann. She's a black-footed ferret. She also happens to be the first endangered species native to North America to be cloned. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas.

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: A small face pokes its nose through the bars of a metal cage, curious about the two women who've entered the room. Still hiding in the nest box is a young, black-footed ferret.

DELLA GARELLE: So I would like to see if I can get her into this little handling cage and then get a weight on her.

SAKAS: That's Della Garelle, a veterinarian with the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center near Fort Collins, Colo. Garelle gets Elizabeth Ann out from hiding but not before she does a defensive bark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FERRET BARKING)

SAKAS: Yeah, cleaning black-footed ferret cages often requires earplugs. Robyn Bortner is the captive ferret breeding manager. She reads out Elizabeth Ann's weight.

ROBYN BORTNER: Eight-hundred-and-sixteen grams. And she has all the usual characteristics of her species, which are the classic black feet, a black-tipped tail.

SAKAS: And a strip of dark fur across her eyes, like a mask. Elizabeth Ann might look like all the other black-footed ferrets, but she is quite unique. She's the clone of a ferret who died in the '80s. Here's Garelle.

GARELLE: It's pretty inspiring that people 30 years ago saved those tissues in case this could happen someday. So dreams do come true (laughter).

SAKAS: Garelle says the bigger dream is to get the black-footed ferret off the endangered species list. The population was decimated by disease, habitat loss and the decline of prairie dog populations, a black-footed ferret's main source of food. Ben Novak is the lead scientist of the biotechnology nonprofit Revive & Restore, which collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the cloning project.

BEN NOVAK: Elizabeth Ann stands to bring in this huge boost of diversity for the species. Today, every black-footed ferret is related to each other, somewhere between a sibling and a first cousin.

SAKAS: In fact, the black-footed ferret was once thought to be extinct, and then in the early '80s, a ranch dog in Wyoming dropped a carcass off on its owner's porch. Biologists tracked down where it came from and eventually captured the last group of wild black-footed ferrets. Only seven of those passed down their DNA. Today, there are just 500 ferrets in the wild.

NOVAK: Elizabeth Ann was cloned from the tissue of a ferret named Willa. She actually has no living descendants.

SAKAS: Revive & Restore is also working on what Novak calls its moonshot projects, like bringing back the woolly mammoth. That could take decades. In the meantime, their new technology could work on other conservation challenges faster. Oliver Ryder is the director of conservation genetics at San Diego Zoo Global.

OLIVER RYDER: We are at the dawn, I believe, not at a culmination of our understanding about how these kinds of samples can be used.

SAKAS: Ryder asked for the ferret samples more than 30 years ago and kept them at the Frozen Zoo, a collection of cryopreserved samples. Decades later, they were turned into embryos and implanted in a ferret. Ryder thinks Elizabeth Ann's birth shows that cloning could help prevent extinctions. He'd like to see other tissue samples banked, even if animals are not endangered.

RYDER: I think these technologies can really provide a basis for ensuring that we have wildlife populations in the future.

SAKAS: Elizabeth Ann will live at the conservation center, along with her identical-cloned sister ferrets who are on the way. The hope is their babies and their genes will eventually be introduced into the wild.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "MOONCAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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