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Scientists clone an endangered ferret for the first time

Picture of Elizabeth Ann at 50-days old. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists have resurrected a black-footed ferret after it died more than three decades ago — well, sort of. Using modern techniques, the dead ferret’s DNA was used to produce a perfectly healthy clone, marking the first time scientists have cloned an endangered species in the United States.

This cute clone, named Elizabeth Ann, was born on December 10 at a Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. She was cloned from the genetic material of a ferret called Willa who died in 1988 and whose DNA was frozen until recently.

Elizabeth Ann looks healthy and loveable, but unlike her domestic ferret foster mother, she’s a wild creature — so a bit unpredictable and potentially dangerous to handle. At least, she’s keeping her human caretakers on their toes.

“You might have been handling a black-footed ferret kit and then they try to take your finger off the next day,” Pete Gober, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret recovery coordinator, said in a statement for AP. “She’s holding her own.”

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), also known as the American polecat or Prairie Dog Hunter, is a species of mustelid native to central North America. These weasel-like creatures are among the most endangered mammals in North America and are the only ferret species native to the continent.

They’re so rare that people actually thought they went extinct until 1981 when some black-footed ferrets were found on a Wyoming ranch by a dog named Shep.

Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been running captive breeding and release programs designed to restore the species to the wild. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sustain populations without the ferrets’ main source of food, prairie dogs. Over the past century, more than 95% of prairie dog colonies have been wiped out by habitat loss and disease.

After releasing thousands of ferrets and dozens of sites in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico since the 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying something different — cloning.

Cloning is the process of making a genetically identical organism through nonsexual means. At its simplest, cloning works by taking a genetic part of an organism, such as its genome from frozen tissue, and recreating it in another place, such as in the egg of a domestic ferret.

The first successful animal cloning occurred more than twenty years ago when scientists in Scotland revealed to the world Dolly the sheep. Since then, cloning techniques have improved vastly to the point it’s now pretty commercial. For instance, there are farms in the U.S. that clone cows and some businesses even offer to clone your pet. One British couple, for instance, made headlines in 2017 after spending £67,000 on cloning their dead dog after sending the DNA to a company in South Korea.

Elizabeth Ann was cloned by a Texas-based company called Viagen, under the coordination of Revive & Restore, a wildlife conservation organization focused on biotechnology. 

The idea is to have Elizabeth Ann and future clones form a new line of black-footed ferrets that will strengthen current conservation programs rather than replace them. For now, Elizabeth Ann will remain at a facility at Fort Collins for study with no immediate plans for release in the wild.

Ben Novak, lead scientist with Revive & Restore, says that the same approach might one day be used to bring back extinct animals from the dead, such as the passenger pigeon.

Russian researchers extract liquid blood from frozen 42,000-year-old foal — plan to clone it

The frozen remains of a palaeolithic foal were found embedded in permafrost in 2018. Now, researchers have harvested blood from it, hoping to collect viable cells for cloning.

The remains of the 42,000-year-old foal. Image credits: Semyon Grigoryev/NEFU

The specimen, thought to belong to an extinct species of horse known as Lenskaya breed (also known as the Lena horse), was found in remarkably good shape. Now, a Russian-Korean collaboration is analyzing the remains hoping to find viable cells to clone the creature.

So far, they’ve not been able to extract any somatic cells. More than 20 attempts to grow cells from the animal’s tissue have been carried out — and they all failed. However, the scientists hope that their luck will change, since they were able to extract liquid blood from the foal.

The liquid blood sample. Image credits: NEFU.

The unfortunate animal fell victim to deceiving mud. Presumably, due to its young age and inexperience, it entered the murky mud and was unable to free itself, drowning in the mud. The mud quickly froze, which created the favorable conditions for this excellent preservation.

The team, involving scientists from the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk and the South Korean Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, noted that the muscles and heart vessels were in excellent shape. Even the hair was conserved by the permafrost.

However, researchers aren’t sure if the blood samples contain the clonable cells they are looking for — as the ultimate goal of the team is to revive this animal through the processes of cloning. However, the researchers appear to be completely be disregarding any ethical considerations associated with the process and rushing ahead — the team is reportedly already looking for a surrogate mare to give birth to the “comeback species”.

Sooam Biotech is in the business of cloning pet dogs in South Korea, despite the fact that its lead researcher, Hwang Woo Suk, has been accused of several egregious ethics violations during the 2000s).

Even if the creature is born, and even it is perfectly healthy after cloning (which is very questionable at this point), its quality of life will almost certainly be very low and it will be subjected to medical tests and experiments for its entire existence. Furthermore, its ecosystem no longer truly exists, and genetic diversity is non-existent, which makes it unlikely to develop a viable species.

However, the Russian-Korean collaboration is adamant. They are also trying to clone a woolly mammoth, despite doubts expressed by the international scientific community. Whether we like it or not, the cloning might soon happen.

New species of wild banana discovered in Thailand

Researchers have discovered a new species of banana christened “nanensis”, belonging to the Musa genus, sharing a place in the family Musaceae with more than 70 other species of bananas and plantains. Its scientific name honors the province of Nan where the type specimens were collected.

A – clump of pseudostems; B – leaf bases; C – cross-section of petiole canal; D – male inflorescence; E – female inflorescence; F – male flowers, tepals fused at base and six anthers fused at base; G – female flower, tepals fused at base and six sterile anthers or five sterile with one fertile anther fused at base; H – transverse and longitudinal sections of fruits and a hand.
Image via

Here’s a fun fact: every banana you’ve ever eaten — most likely a Cavendish — is genetically identical to all other bananas.

Why? Wild bananas contain big, hard seeds and very little flesh, making them almost inedible. Since its domestication over 7000 years ago, farmers have been hard at work selectively breeding the fruit to have really tiny, non-fertile seeds. Tasty, but not very practical — the lack of seeds means that growers must rely on “pups,” cuttings of an existent banana plant, to propagate crops. So basically, each one of the long yellow fruit you’ve purchased in a shop or grocery is thus genetically identical to all other bananas in the building.

One of the biggest concerns with having a whole species of clone organisms is that because they are genetically identical, they could all be wiped out by a single disease. Such was the case with the Cavendish’s predecessor, the Gros Michel, that was wiped out by the fungus fusarium oxysporum. Wild species of banana, however, do have seeds. The random combinations of maternal and paternal genes that sexual reproduction creates helps species adapt to pathogens. Should our banana crops ever suffer from an event as terrible as the Panama disease again, their wild relatives might be our only chance to save the banana split as we know it today.

Top banana

According to Dr Sasivimon Swangpol of Mahidol University and her colleagues, Musa nanensis is a perennial herb, 4.9 to 9.8 feet (1.5 to 3 m) in height. Its flowering time is year round, and its fruits are 2.8 inches (7 cm) long and 0.6 inches (1.5 cm) wide, straight to curved, angular with prominent ridges at maturity. Each bunch has 3-10 hands and each hand contains 4-10 bananas. Seeds are irregular, sharp angular, 3-5 mm by 2-5 mm by 2-3 mm.

The fruits and hands of Musa nanensis.
Image via sci-news

“The new taxon possesses generally thicker leaves than other Musa species,” Dr Swangpol and co-authors wrote in a paper in the journal Systematic Botany.

“In addition, Musa nanensis has various epidermal cell shapes with relatively longer hypodermal cells on its adaxial side as compared to corresponding epidermal cells.”

Several specimens of Musa nanensis were collected from only one locality close to the Thai-Lao border in the province of Nan. However, it is expected that the new species will be found across the border in Laos PDR.

“The taxon was found at 2,740 feet (835 m) altitude in the dry evergreen forest, by streams in a valley in a lower mountainous forest,” the scientists said.

According to the team, Musa nanensis is an extremely rare plant.

“Since the first collection in 2002 until 2012, it has been seen by the authors only at the type locality, where there are fewer than 50 plants,” Dr Swangpol and her colleagues wrote in the paper.

“In addition, its habitat in the dry evergreen forest in Tambon Dong Phaya, Amphoe Bo Kluea of Changwat Nan is threatened by heavy deforestation and fragmentation.”

“On the basis of IUCN, the plant should be listed as critically endangered and, therefore, considered to be in need of urgent conservation.”

Would you clone your dog for $100,000?

We’ve come a long way since the first mammal, a sheep named Dolly, was cloned. Now, a lab in South Korea will clone your dog for around $100,000; so far, they’ve cloned 400 pets since 2006.

Los Angeles businessman Peter Onruang cloned his dog, Wolfie.

Cloning is still tabu in many parts of the world, but it’s a process which is no longer reserved for the future – it’s happening now. It took 434 attempts before researchers managed to clone Dolly, and the sheep only lived for six years, but now, the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation laboratory in South Korea can clone your dog pretty with relative ease. They’re using the same technology through which Dolly was cloned, and the price is somewhere around $100,000.

The technology is called ash nuclear transfer. It starts by taking a few cells from your beloved pet and then reprogramming them to stop growing. They then take an egg from a different female dog, and with a straw-like device they remove its nucleus. With a similar device, they take the nucleus from your dog and place it in the egg. The cell nucleus contains most of the cell’s genetic material, organized as multiple long linear DNA molecules. They then zap the resulting cell with electricity to fuse it together and ensure that it can divide again, and then they reimplant the egg in a surrogate mother dog. If everything else works out fine, the surrogate mother will give birth to a dog which will look exactly like your dog. I say “look exactly like your dog” because it won’t exactly be your dog… it’s something more like a perfect twin of your dog.

“The dog will not be 100 percent the same – the spots on a Dalmatian clone will be different, for example – but for breeds without such characteristics it will be very hard to tell them apart,” Sooam biologist Insung Hwang told The Guardian last year.

So, doesn’t this mean that you’re technically not getting your pup? Indeed, Hwang admits that this is the case – people are “not getting their old dog back”, but a new one that looks just like it. It will also likely have the same temperament, but it won’t be the same dog. There are also many risks associated with this procedure, and often times it goes wrong.

“Things can go wrong. In 2005, when Snuppy, our first cloned dog, was born, we had a 2% pregnancy rate. Now it is about 30%. Some traits go wrong. Dogs can be born unhealthy. For example, they can be born with thickened necks or tongues, and experience breathing difficulties. But we guarantee a healthy puppy for our clients, so we will try again. Often the client will take both puppies in this situation. We never put a dog down.”

Hwang poses with the recently uncovered woolly mammoth, whom the researchers named Buttercup. He hopes to be able to clone this wooly mammoth. Image via Business Insider.

Technologically, this is a laudable achievement. It also serves the purpose of improving and further developing the technique. But what about the ethics? Is it ethical to create life like this – especially when there’s a good chance of the puppy suffering from defects? Oh, and technically you’re not getting your dog back, you’re just getting a really good surrogate… so one could argue that there is little point in doing this. There is also another big problem with this laboratory. As Erin Brodwin writes for Business Insider:

“Eight years after winning international acclaim for cloning the world’s first dog in 2005, Sooam founder and veterinarian by training Woo Suk Hwang was publically disgraced for falsifying research on human embryo cloning. Hwang (no relation to Insung Hwang) was expelled from Seoul National University, where he did the research, and is still facing criminal charges.”

Despite public outrage, Hwang was able to raise funding and start this laboratory, and these days, they’re producing about 15 pups a month. For some people, it’s just a way to ease the pain, and a good replacement. As someone who dearly loves animals, I can understand that. I’m not sure I agree with it, but I can understand it.

Cloning can be very useful in bringing back to life extinct species, as some scientists are already planning. Hwang also believes that, together with Russian researchers he can bring back to life a wooly mammoth – though many doubt that possibility. All in all, the technique can be very valuable, but I still feel that we need to set a very clear ethical framework. With this, the question remains: would you clone your dog ?

 

The jaguar is one of eight species that Brazilian scientists will attempt to clone.

Brazil begins cloning of endangered wild species

As one of the largest countries in the world, Brazil is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. At the same time, however, it also boosts a number of unique species currently threatened with extinction. Recently, scientists have embarked on a quest to clone wild animal species under threat of obliteration in attempt to aid in conservation efforts.

The jaguar is one of eight species that Brazilian scientists will attempt to clone.

The jaguar is one of eight species that Brazilian scientists will attempt to clone.

The project is being undertaken by the Brasilia Zoological Garden in partnership with the Brazilian government’s agricultural research agency, EMBRAPA, and is now in its second phase. The first phase lasted two years and consisted of gathering genetic material from each targeted species.

So far, the Brazilian scientists have  gathered over 420 germplasm samples from dead wild specimens. Eight animals have been chosen for the initiative, including the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the black lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysopygus) – all listed as critically endangered. Now, the researchers are ready for the actual cloning process.

Brazil cloned its first animal in 2001, a calf named Vitória, which went on to live until 2011. Since then more than 11 animals, mostly dogs and cattle, have been cloned, but no wild animals so far. Giving the lack of experience, it’s yet difficult to foresee how long will take for the project to finish.

The researchers note that their goal is not that of replenishing the wild with cloned specimens. Given as their clones in the first place, their contribution to genetic diversity is zero and might actually do more harm than good. Their main intention is that of replacing zoo specimens. Cloned animals would only be released in extreme cases, said EMBRAPA researcher Carlos Frederico Martins.

“If a certain species was in a state of drastic decline, at risk of total extinction, and it was possible to provide reinforcement, we will have the capacity,” Juciara Pelles, the head of conservation and research at the Brasilia Zoo, told Tierramérica.

“We are still in the phase of developing the technology, so we still don’t know if it will be possible to rescue a population in the wild, but we could potentially make it viable again,” she added.

 

 

Japanese and Russian scientists believe claim they will clone a mammoth

Scientists from Russia and Japan searching in the permafrost soil in Siberia have found mammoth remains so well-preserved that they believe they will actually be able to clone it, using its bone marrow.

Teams from Sakha Republic’s mammoth museum and Japan’s Kinki University have embarked on this quest, vowing to find how this can be done in one year’s time. Basically, by replacing the nuclei of egg cells from an elephant with those taken from the mammoth’s marrow, embryos with mammoth DNA will be produced, according to researchers. The scientists then intend to plant the embryos into elephant wombs, as the two species are closely related.

However, the crucial step of this initiative will be to secure nuclei with undamaged genes for the transplantation technique. Mammoths have been extinct some 10.000 years, but ironically, researchers were able to find these remains thanks to global warming, which tamed the eastern parts of Siberia which are almost always frozen.

So, how do you feel about this? I have some pretty mixed feelings about this – I mean of course, cloning a mammoth – that’s huge! Aside from the achievement itself, imagine the thrill , the publicity and the support science will receive thanks to this. But then again, the procedure might be pretty risky for the elephant which is supposed to deliver. I’m no biologist, so I’m not really fully aware of the risks involved here – so if anyone can step in, then please feel free to do so.