Bioethics Blogs

Ferreting Out Genomic Secrets


Ferret in a Colorado conservation center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Not only is the ferret (Mustela putorius furo) adept at navigating a dirt field or threading electrical cables through piping (in New Zealand, ferrets can be registered as electrician assistants), this furry 5-pounder ranks as a real heavyweight for studying respiratory diseases. In fact, much of our current thinking about influenza is influenced by research with ferrets.

Now, the ferret will stand out even more. As reported online in Nature Biotechnology, NIH-funded researchers recently sequenced the genome of the sable ferret, the type that is bred in the United States as a pet. By studying this genetic blueprint like an explorer would a map, scientists can perform experiments to learn more systematically how the ferret copes biologically with common or emerging respiratory pathogens, pointing the way to improved strategies to preserve the health and well being of humans and ferrets alike.

The ferret belongs to the Order Carnivora, along with dogs, cats, bears, and about 280 other species. But somewhere in the mists of time, the precursor to today’s two ferret species diverged from its carnivorous cousins to form a unique family, positioning what became Mustela putorius furo on a rung of the evolutionary ladder that is of interest to researchers. The ferret is closer biologically and physiologically to humans than the mouse or the rat, the traditional go-to animal models for studying hundreds of human diseases. This makes the ferret an important genomic reference point for researchers to compare their results between mice and humans, and a potentially useful model to study certain developmental questions and cancers.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.