This ferret’s twin lived more than 30 years ago. How is that possible?

CBC Kids News • Published 2021-03-03 08:35

Elizabeth Ann cloned to help her species

A ferret that died more than 30 years ago is getting a second chance at life.

Well, sort of. More precisely, an exact replica of that ferret has been brought to life.

American scientists have cloned an endangered species native to the U.S. called the black-footed ferret.

The clone, named Elizabeth Ann, was made to help the dwindling ferret species survive by increasing something called genetic diversity.

But before we get to that ...

What the heck’s a clone and how are they made?

Clones are two living things that have the exact same genes, just like identical twins.

Clones of animals are made in a lab by taking the cells of an adult animal, living or dead, and altering them to change them into the building block type of cells seen in the womb.

In 1996, Dolly the sheep was the first animal to be cloned by a group of researchers in Scotland. (Image credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Reuters)

These cells are then placed into the womb of an adult female of that animal, called a surrogate mom, to grow the clone.

The surrogate mom then gives birth to the clone.

Elizabeth Ann’s surrogate mom is a ferret of a different species.

Cloning is controversial, however, as some say that cloning animals may lead scientists to one day clone humans, which could lead to a lot of different problems.

For example, one issue some scientists argue is that the science isn't perfect, and errors in the cloning process could lead to babies with major medical issues or deformities. 

Why this ferret was cloned

Back in 1981, the black-footed ferret species was on the edge of extinction.

Elizabeth Ann drinks milk from her surrogate mother beside her siblings. They are all a different type of ferret species than Elizabeth Ann. (Image credit: USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center)

To help the species survive, scientists in Wyoming gathered seven ferrets from the few that remained to start a breeding program.

Since then, thousands of ferrets have been reintroduced into the wild, but they all come from the seven original ferrets.

Because the ferrets all come from such a small gene pool, they are missing something called genetic diversity.

Genetic diversity is important for helping animals fight off disease and other dangers that could harm their species.

Elizabeth Ann was cloned using the cells from a ferret that lived more than 30 years ago. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

Think of it this way:

Say you’re on a team of seven people trying to take down a dragon.

You each bring unique combat skills, but the dragon breathes fire and none of you know how to overcome the flames.

But if you brought in an eighth person, there’s a chance they’ve fought fire-breathing dragons before, and their knowledge could mean the difference between life and death.

Elizabeth Ann could be this eighth person.

Her genes come from a ferret named Willa who died in the 1980s and whose cells were frozen in case they might come in handy in the future.

Elizabeth Ann brings a new gene pool into the mix, and Lead researcher Ben Novak said that  once she and her kids are introduced into the wild, they’ll increase the genetic diversity of the species and make the species better at surviving dangers in the wild.

Lead researcher Ben Novak holds Elizabeth Ann just after she was born in 2020. (Image submitted by Heather Sparks/Revive & Restore)

For now, the technique used to clone Elizabeth Ann could help other endangered species like a Mongolian wild horse that was cloned last summer and born at a Texas facility.

With files from CBC’s As It Happens, The Associated Press and Reuters.

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