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Infusion of Genetic Diversity from the Museum

To increase the genetic diversity of the black-footed ferret, Fish and Wildlife Service officials are considering taking a page from the 'de-extinction' crowd's book, reports David Biello at Scientific American.

About 30 years ago, the black-footed ferret population hit a low of 18 known individuals, but a breeding and management program brought them back from that brink. There are now a few hundred of them, according to Biello. But, as he notes, these ferrets are all closely related as they descend from a small group.

To bolster the ferrets' genetic diversity, the FWS is thinking about re-introducing ferret DNA from museum and other specimens back into the population. "The effort may not sound as outlandish as the dream of resurrecting the woolly mammoth, but it does involve reviving genes that died with their hosts — and as such, it won't be easy," Biello says.

He notes, though, that the black-footed ferret offers some advantages that might help this plan be viable: it breeds quickly and has close relatives that could be enlisted as surrogates for research. At the same time, though, he adds that there are legal and funding challenges in addition to the scientific ones.

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