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.
But where the ferret excels is as a model of the respiratory diseases. The lungs and airways of a ferret and a human have striking physiological similarities. This has allowed researchers to study inherited human respiratory conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, with the ferret in ways that they can’t do as readily with mice. Perhaps because of these anatomic and genomic similarities, the ferret contracts many of the same respiratory viruses that afflict humans (like influenza), and, like people, they mount vigorous immune responses and can transmit disease to other ferrets by coughing.
Given all of the above, some researchers have asked for resources to guide their studies with ferrets. The publication of the ferret genome marks a critical step forward to fill this need. Other NIH-supported resources are in development. Work continues to characterize normal gene expression in various adult ferret tissues and the changes that occur when various respiratory viruses strike. Another project is cataloguing the common single nucleotide variations in the ferret’s genetic code, and work is ongoing to characterize the community of microbes that colonize its upper respiratory tract and influence their susceptibility to lung infections.
 The draft genome sequence of the ferret (Mustela putorius furo) facilitates study of human respiratory disease. Peng X et al. Nat Biotechnol. 2014 Dec;32(12):1250-1255.
Ferret Genome Database, Ensembl
Katze Lab, University of Washington, Seattle
Frequently Asked Questions, American Ferret Association
History of the Ferret, WeaselWords
NIH support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; NIH Office of the Director; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences