Dolly the cloned sheep is a legend. Not so her technical descendant Elizabeth Ann the endangered black-footed ferret.

By Leigh Dayton

4 March 2021

In 1966 Alan Trounson was enjoying a hike in the hills above Edinburgh, Scotland with his colleague Ian Wilmut when Wilmut revealed a secret. His team at the Roslin Institute had cloned a mammal.

Using somatic cell nuclear transfer, they had implanted DNA taken from an adult sheep’s mammary gland and implanted it into the egg of another sheep. They had named the lamb after buxom Dolly Parton.

Trounson was stunned. “I was absolutely astounded”, he recalls. He sat down to consider the implication: cloned humans. The news went viral when Dolly’s birth was announced 22 February 1997.

Trounson – and the world – were less alarmed when the US Fish and Wildlife Services announced the birth of Elizabeth Ann on 18 February.

The ferret kit was created from the frozen cells of “Willa,” a black-footed ferret that lived more than 30 years ago. The Wyoming Game & Fish Department had sent Walla’s tissue samples San Diego Zoo’s Global Frozen Zoo in 1988 which supplied the genetic material for Elizabeth Ann.

One reason Elizabeth Ann’s birth has been welcomed, if less reported than Dolly’s birth, is that she is an endangered animal.

“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,” Noreen Walsh, Director of the USFWS’s Mountain-Prairie Region, told BBC Science Focus Magazine.

As Trounson notes, “the technology could be used for many species like the white rhino”.

Secondly, since Dolly’s controversial birth experts such as Trounson have worked to regulate the use of the technology emerging since she became an animal celebrity. To date, there is no known instance of cloned humans.

The closest misuse of the emerging technology was revealed at the November 2018 of the at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong. There, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui announced that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies using CRISPR-Cas 9 technology.

He was fired from his university a year later. Then on 30 December 2020, the People’s Court of Nanshan District of Shenzhe sentenced He to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice”, and handed down shorter sentences to two colleagues who assisted him.

Clearly, the He example illustrates the risks new technologies may pose, but the examples of Dolly and Elizabeth Ann show the benefit emerging technologies offer when they are considered and regulated.

For example, Cartherics is using such technology to create off-the-shelf immunology treatments for diseases such as relapsed ovarian and gastric cancers.

“We need to ensure that science is used for the benefit of the entire world, not just for individual whim. Cloning has a potentially important role in salvage of disappearing species that are critical components of retaining our global biodiversity” says Trounson.