The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is one of Australia’s most iconic species. Although it has been extinct since 1936, the slender, striped marsupial holds its place in Australian mythology due to a constant series of alleged sightings that has fascinated the public and the media. Just last year, a group claimed to have. The claims were never verified.
Sadly, the Tasmanian tiger is gone, but with advances in biotechnology, that may not be the case.
A team of researchers from the University of Melbourne plans to bring the Tasmanian tiger back to life. On March 1, they announced the creation of the Thylacine Integrated Gene Restoration Research Laboratory (TIGRR), thanks to a $ 3.6 million (Australian $ 5 million) philanthropic donation.
Andrew Pask, a marsupial evolutionary biologist and Tasmanian tiger expert at the University of Melbourne, will lead the project. He notes that yes, the great research challenge is to bring the Tasmanian tiger back to life. However, while this is the main focus, the biotechnology that will be developed along the way is central to marsupial conservation efforts today.
“It’s not all Jurassic Park and, you know, ‘we shouldn’t be playing God,’” says Pask. “We really need a lot of this stuff to protect the marsupials right now.”
There have been requests to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger for over two decades. In 1999, paleontologist Michael Archer took over as director of the Australian Museum and committed about $ 57 million in a project that hoped to clone the iconic marsupial from old specimens. At the time it was called “fantasy” and in 2005 it was boxed.
Since then, two decades of breakthroughs in gene editing have allowed scientists to dream big about “de-extinction,” the process of reviving extinct species. The great revolution is thanks towhich presents scientists with a way to recreate the genetic code of long-extinct species.
Technology is at the heart of a proposal to bring the Woolly Mammoth back to life by 2027, led by biotech company Colossal. In September,and that he would attempt to have his first calves in “four or six years” and bring herds of mammoths back to the Arctic.
Bringing back a species would require understanding its DNA code, from start to finish.
Scientists would then be able to take cells from a related species and use CRISPR to modify that code. For example, the Tasmanian tiger is related to another marsupial species, the mouse-like thylacine. “It turns out the dunnart is pretty much the closest thing to a thylacine of any living marsupial,” she says.
Starting with a dunnart cell, you can modify all the differences in the DNA to transform it into a Tasmanian tiger. Think of it like turning a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. You can leave some words, characters, phrases intact, but you will have to rephrase and rearrange the text so that it becomes a completely different book.
The first step is complete. Pask’s group was able to decode the whole genome of the Tasmanian tiger in a study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution in 2017. However, the work required to transform one species into another is still at least a decade from now, Pask estimates. “It depends on the progress of that technology in the next few years,” he says.
The starting point of the TIGRR Lab is to use gene editing techniques developed in places like Colossal to make more immediate gains in marsupial gene editing, Pask adds.
It talks specifically about a project: gene editing in the quoll, an endangered species of carnivorous marsupial. Quoll numbers have dropped dramatically across Australia thanks to urbanization and the invasive cane toad. Quolls love to feed on toads, but the toad’s venom can kill them, posing a serious threat to the survival of the species.
Some of the techniques developed on the road to Tasmanian tiger extinction could allow researchers to engineer cane toad resistance in the quoll population.
Resurrect the dead
The de-extinction projects have attracted the ire of some conservation researchers, who have suggested that spending large dollars for raising animals from the dead could actually result in a loss of biodiversity .
The argument against species restoration is that maintaining populations carries a significant cost. At least for Pask, the Tasmanian tiger is a special case with obvious advantages. The environment he lived in 90 years ago hasn’t changed much and was the apex predator of his time. You could put it back into the environment, she suggests, and see the benefits immediately.
However, it wouldn’t be as simple as raising and letting tiger cubs. Such a project is likely to require intensive monitoring and maintenance, and the effects on the overall ecosystem are difficult to predict. Understanding the complexities and interplay between species is a key consideration and any interventions should be discussed with stakeholders.
Will we see Tasmanian tigers roam Australia in the next decade? It is hard to say. Pask’s laboratory pedigree and funding certainly set humanity on the path to such a future. Biotechnological advances in gene editing demonstrate that we have entered a new reality where science has the power to manipulate DNA in a way that can, in theory, bring extinct species back to life.