As It Happens

'She's just perfect,' says scientist who helped clone an endangered ferret

Ben Novak will never forget the time he met Elizabeth Ann, the black-footed ferret clone. The little critter's birth marks the first time scientists have cloned an endangered species in the U.S.

Elizabeth Ann, the black-footed ferret, is the 1st clone of an endangered U.S. species

Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and first cloned U.S. endangered species, is pictured when she was 50 days old on Jan. 29, 2021. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

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Ben Novak will never forget the time he met Elizabeth Ann, the black-footed ferret clone.

The little critter's birth marks the first time scientists have cloned an endangered species in the U.S., and Novak is the lead scientist at the conservation nonprofit that helped make it happen.

So when she was born, he packed up his whole family and drove across the country from North Carolina to Colorado to see her.

Though he only got to spend about 15-20 minutes with Elizabeth Ann, "you know, time stopped. She's just perfect," Novak, the lead biotechnology scientist at Revive & Restore, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It was incredible to feel so much work pay off that can have such a huge impact, not only the conservation of her species, but, you know, a turning point in biotechnologies for conservation the world over."

Ben Novak holding Elizabeth Ann soon after she was born. (Submitted by Heather Sparks/Revive & Restore)

Elizabeth Ann was born on Dec. 10, 2020, and resides at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colo. The team waited several months to introduce her to the world.

"The first few weeks of their life can be really critical for any ferret, natural-born or clone, and so we wanted to know that she was going to be good," Novak said.

"She is thriving and growing and becoming more and more black-footed ferret-like every day."

From the brink of extinction 

Elizabeth Ann is the genetic copy of Willa, a black-footed ferret who died in 1988 and whose cells were frozen using early DNA technology. Using in-vitro fertilization, she was carried by a surrogate mom, a tamed domestic ferret of a different species.

"Although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America, and it  provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret," said Noreen Walsh, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's mountain-prairie region.

Elizabeth Ann with her domestic ferret siblings and surrogate mother. (USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center)

Black-footed ferrets are an endangered species, but they have come a long way in recent decades. 

They were on the verge of extinction in 1981, when scientists in Wyoming gathered the few that remained for a breeding program that has since released thousands of ferrets into the wild in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

All of those ferrets — nearly 25 generations' worth — can trace their lineage back to just seven individuals. Elizabeth Ann brings some genetic diversity to the mix.

"She brings an eighth gene pool, essentially, into this population," Novak said. "This is just a huge paradigm shift in this type of work."

That's because Willa, who was among those captured for breeding in the '80s, has no known living descendants. Willa procreated, but her son, Cody, "didn't do his job," Pete Gober of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Associated Press. 

Scientists hope the slinky predator and her descendants will improve the genetic diversity of a species once on the verge of extinction. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

The ferret will soon be joined by some "sister clones" as well as male clones for them to mate with, Novak said.

"Until about 2023, we'll just be keeping these clones and their own little population to be able to say, yes, they are healthy, they are fit, they're every bit as wild and savvy as every other black-footed ferret," he said. 

"And by 2025, we hope that her kids or grandkids may actually be released to the wild to join the other black-footed ferrets and start enriching the wild gene pools."

Novak says Elizabeth Ann is the product of more than 200 people's labour, including employees at his company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, private pet cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press and Reuters. Interview with Ben Novak produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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