Blog by Oliver Ryder, San Diego Frozen Zoo
The marvel that is the black-footed ferret has seen the loss of habitat and prey and experienced devastating epidemics that brought it to the brink of extinction. The black-footed ferret still struggles to expand its tenuous foothold in the landscapes of the extant. All living black-footed ferrets descend from seven individuals in a single population that almost survived in Meeteetse, Wyoming, until an epidemic of canine distemper resulted in the death of the last wild individuals. Efforts led by the State of Wyoming and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that brought in teams of experts in a wide diversity of fields, saved the black-footed ferret from extinction through successful breeding efforts in specialized facilities, including zoos.
Those who marvel at the wonders of nature and whose curiosity leads them to ask questions about how it all works have new realms to explore as the era of wildlife genomics unfolds. Those who view a complex machine and marvel at its intricate workings may similarly be enchanted to contemplate how DNA molecules, representing an unbroken chain of descent and modification from the first dividing cells, have produced the unimaginable diversity of forms of life.
Scientist and Citizen alike are now able to address these contemplations in a reality that is stunning. Those who are concerned about the preservation of the wondrous diversity of life on Earth have gained a new tool for its appreciation and for working to save it, in the form of the data resident on this web site.
Now, with the whole genome sequences of four black-footed ferrets, two that were saved as living cells in San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo®, and two living black-footed ferrets from the Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, we have information that can transform our understanding of aspects of black-footed biology. Today, thirty years and twenty generations after the loss of the last population in the wild, we can begin to examine in the utmost detail the changes that have ensued. What has been lost and what has changed over this time in the genetic constitution of the black-footed ferret – its gene pool?
As a scientist who, as a teenager was enchanted with the concept of a molecule that instructed our inheritance, I am awed and astounded to be among the first to look across the billions of bases of DNA landscape of the black-footed ferret, an opportunity seemingly beyond the realm of possibility less than a human lifetime ago. And, you can join my colleagues, fellow scientists, and me in this endeavor. You are free to wonder as you wander though the data and analysis tools that are available on this website.
To conserve the gene pool of the black-footed ferret and discern how it may be changing through time, we can ask questions about how much genetic diversity was present in 1985 that may now be lost. Are there indications of inbreeding and are these consistent with what we know of the species pedigree? We can also ask which genes are changing, for the black-footed ferret genome is annotated with information about the genes and other genetic elements it encodes and with pointers to what is known about these genes in other organisms. Are there genes for susceptibility to disease? Are the instincts encoded in their DNA being changed through generations of managed breeding in captivity? We can begin to investigate those questions through looking into the now openly available genes of the black-footed ferret.
Those who take at trip into the workings of the genomic biology of the black-footed ferret may find that, even picking a single gene or two, they tug on the entire fabric of life.
As we all share the results of our inquiries and discuss the biology of black-footed ferrets, the landscape of hope for their survival expands. Let’s do it!