On the Brink of Extinction

In the year 1987, there were only 18 black-footed ferrets in existence. Thankfully, intensive management and captive breeding increased their numbers to around a couple of hundred.

But this particular group of animals is facing a problem — their genetic material is almost all similar, because technically, they are half-siblings. Out of the 18 ferrets that were salvaged from the wild, only seven were successful in passing on their genetic material. This makes them more susceptible to the same hereditary problems, pathogens, and other vulnerabilities.

Genetic Manipulation

Credit: Ryan Hagerty / USFWS

With all of this in mind, the increase in ferret population may soon be followed by another population collapse. In order to solve this problem, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has a rather extreme plan: reintroducing DNA from long-dead ferrets stored in zoos and museums.

Last year, geneticists funded by the Long Now Foundation's Revive & Restore efforts, sequenced the genome of two living ferrets and those of a male and female ferret that died in the 1980s. They found that the genetic materials from their specimens are diverse enough to breed.

Methods such as cloning and CRSPR gene editing may be used to bring back DNA sequences that were long gone. Thus, frozen ferrets may be cloned to mate with the living ones. The genetic material of the living ones may also be altered to incorporate DNA sequences that code for antibodies to combat sylvatic plague and canine distemper.

This type of genetic manipulation is paired with many challenges. One is finding enough funding and another is facing legal consequences surrounding projects involving endangered species. But, as long as funding can be found, the Revive & Restore group plans to get things started this year.

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