The intriguing genre of Science Fiction has predicted many technological and scientific innovations decades before they were created. Credit cards, airpods, the internet, solar power, electric cars, and the lunar landing were all predicted in sci-fi classics like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Looking Backward, and more. Aldous Huxley’ 1932 novel, Brave New World, is centered around another futuristic theme, cloning. Cloning is the act of creating an organism that is genetically identical to another, entirely in a laboratory. In the modern era cloning, once a wild fiction, has become a reality, and recently a team of researchers from ViaGen, Pets & Equine, and San Diego Zoo Global collaborated to clone a black-footed ferret. Why?
The black-footed ferret is an extremely endangered species. Their wild populations diminished as their main source of food, the prairie dog population, was driven out by farming. By the 1980s, the black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct. However, in 1981, a farmer discovered a small family of ferrets on his land. Scientists moved the ferrets to a specially designed habitat where they could breed. Unfortunately, only 7 of the ferrets could breed, so all of the 650 black-footed ferrets alive today are blood related. Due to their common ancestor, they lack genetic diversity. Therefore, the extinction of the black-footed ferret was considered inevitable until a couple of weeks ago. Ironically, the savior of the entire species is a female black-footed ferret, named Willa, who died in the mid 1980s.
When she died, Willa’s remains were frozen for future use, as part of the early investigation of DNA technology. Modern researchers took Willa’s frozen tissues and regenerated those cells. By copying Willa’s genes, scientists were able to artificially create Elizabeth Ann, Willa’s clone. Through this process of cloning, researchers have been attempting to bring back many extinct species, as well as advance less urgent projects. For example, the Texas-based company Viagen clones pet cats for $35,000 and dogs for $50,000.
While some believe that cloning is messing with nature’s natural cycle, environmentalists argue that humans are primarily responsible for driving many of these species to extinction in the first place and it is our responsibility to revive them.