Cloning wildlife and editing their genes to protect them and us.

H. Thomasy,  NEO-LIFE,  2021.

In December 10, 2020, Elizabeth Ann made history just by being born. She isn’t a British royal, an American married to a British royal, a movie star’s daughter, or even human for that matter. Elizabeth Ann is a ferret—but perhaps the most famous ferret of all time. More specifically, she is the clone of a black-footed ferret named Willa who has been dead for more than 30 years. Elizabeth Ann’s momentous birth marks the first successful cloning of an endangered species native to North America (endangered species like the gaur, or Indian bison, and the mouflon, a wild sheep originally found in Corsica and Sardinia, have been cloned previously). If she can breed successfully, Elizabeth Ann will add valuable genetic diversity to the very small estimated population of around 600 remaining black-footed ferrets, which are all descended from just seven animals. But low genetic diversity isn’t the only thing standing in the way of these ferrets making a comeback. The other major threat is disease. Diseases are a huge problem for many endangered species, but, as the previous year has emphasized all too well, diseases that circulate in animals can also have disastrous consequences if they jump to humans. Genetic engineering of animals in the wild might offer us a way to protect not only our furry friends and feathered compadres, but ourselves as well. Although still in the early stages of research, scientists around the world are working on numerous projects to engineer animals to be resistant to diseases that can impact humans as well, including plague, Lyme disease, dengue fever, and Zika.

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