Ferreting the Genome

Open Genomics for Conservation

From this site anyone can link to the first fully sequenced black-footed ferret nuclear genomes—from four representative specimens—and participate in the analysis and interpretation of the data.

The black-footed ferret is the ideal animal for this kind of research.  Over 25 years of captive breeding by US Fish & Wildlife, the Smithsonian, and other institutions has yielded some 8,300 ferrets and highly detailed stud books of their breeding record.  That kind of attention was necessary because the entire living population is descended from only seven founders.  They were part of a tiny remnant population of wild ferrets found in Wyoming in 1981, after the species had been given up for extinct.  Their gene pool may have already been severely bottlenecked.

One of America’s most endangered animals, the black-footed ferret, can become a model for developing genomic diagnosis and genetic rescue techniques that could help many endangered species similarly threatened by the “extinction vortex” of progressive inbreeding and genetic drift.

The problem is the continuing decline of genetic variability in the black-footed ferret’s gene pool.  Any solution will require discovering the exact nature of that decline—genomic diagnosis.  And then techniques may be developed to restore genetic variability—genetic rescue.

The sequencing for this project was done by Cofactor Genomics, sponsored by Revive & Restore. The specimens were provided by US Fish & Wildlife Service and the San Diego Frozen Zoo. Coincidentally, the closely related domestic ferret is used extensively for human medical research, and its genome has been thoroughly sequenced and analyzed by the Broad Institute. That data also is linked from this site and offers an excellent reference genome for the black-footed ferret material.

This is open-access science.  If it works as a way to rapidly conduct insightful analysis of a large genomic dataset, it too could become a model.

A Call To Action


Oliver_Ryder″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!″

Oliver Ryder, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

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.

Read more.