Conservationists Exploring Possibility of Recovering Lost Genetics through New Technology

New reproductive technologies are being cited as a way to restore some of the genetic diversity lost in endangered species. A team of conservationists has developed a plan using somatic cell nuclear transfer to bring back the genetics of individual animals that are now preserved only in frozen cell culture banks. Using their genetic material could provide increased genetic variation for future generations of their species, which could counteract the effects of having a severely limited breeding population. A plan to undertake this effort with the critically endangered black-footed ferret was published in the September issue of the Journal of Heredity and can be seen at

“The importance of banking cell cultures from endangered species, such as in our Frozen Zoo®, is vividly demonstrated in this perspective article,” said Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., director of the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, a co-author of the paper.

The critically endangered black-footed ferret is native to North America. The species has been reduced to only a few hundred individuals, and black-footed ferrets are currently being bred in accredited zoos and released into the wild. All black-footed ferrets are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Susceptible to sylvatic plague, the species continues to remain on the brink of extinction, and it is kept alive through the dedication of conservationists.

If successful with the black-footed ferret, the technique could be used with a number of other species whose populations have been drastically reduced to the extent that important genetic diversity has been lost.

“This is the most endangered mammal in America. Using cryopreserved specimens to enrich its gene pool would open up a whole new avenue for conservation,” said Stewart Brand, co-founder of Revive& Restore, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that is helping with the genetic rescue of the black-footed ferret.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.