Scientific Breakthrough Could Bring Back to Life the Extinct Tasmanian Tiger

Will we see Tasmanian tigers roaming Australia in the next decade?
tasmanian tiger

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is one of Australia’s most famous animals. They lived in Tasmania until European settlers hunted them to extinction in the wild through hunting. The last Tasmanian tiger went extinct in 1936. Ever since, the striped, slender marsupial has maintained its place in Australian history due to a constant string of supposed sightings that has fascinated the public and the media. Last year, a group claimed to have sighted the “Tassie Tiger” sauntering through Australia’s forests, but the claim was never confirmed. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian tiger is gone. But with advancements in biotechnology, this may no longer be the case.

Any hope to bring it back to life?

Thylacinus cynocephalus Gould
Thylacinus cynocephalus  by Henry Constantine Richter, licensed under CC BY 2.0

A group of de-extinction scientists from the University of Melbourne plans to bring the de-extinct “tiger” back to life. They have been working on a project to “de-extinct” the animals for years, and new funding for a new world-class research lab has brought them to the brink of resurrecting this lost species. On March 1, they announced the establishment of the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab, thanks to a generous $3.6 million (AUD 5 million) donation from the Wilson Family Trust.

The De-Extinction Researchers

Andrew Pask will lead the project. He is a marsupial evolutionary biologist and Tasmanian tiger expert at the University of Melbourne. The researchers plan to use stem cells to make a Tasmanian tiger embryo that they may implant into a surrogate animal. He noted that the funding would be used in three primary areas in their attempts to save the species:

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  • A better understanding of the Tasmanian tiger’s genome.
  • Using stem cells from other marsupials to create a thylacine embryo.
  • Transferring the stem cells to a surrogate animal such as the mouse-like dunnart.

He said that the grand challenge of the research is to bring back the Tasmanian tiger from the dead. “It’s a big job and needs some significant support to drive it. Fortunately, we now have that. With the current level of support for this initiative, I believe it is possible to develop a thylacine-like cell within the next ten years,” Andrew Pask.

“It’s not all Jurassic Park,” Pask says, “and we shouldn’t try to play God.” He believes that the lab’s gene-editing methods could help protect other essential marsupial species in Australia threatened by environmental changes and recent wildfires. It will also help to prevent biodiversity loss in the region. “Right now, we really need this to protect marsupials.” 

There have been calls to resuscitate the Tasmanian tiger

Michael Archer, a paleontologist, took over as director of the Australian Museum in 1999 and pledged $57 million to research cloning the renowned marsupial from old specimens. It was dubbed a “fantasy” at the time and was canceled in 2005.

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Since then, two decades of genome editing advancements have allowed scientists to dream big about “de-extinction.” CRISPR, a revolutionary DNA cut-and-paste technology, has ushered in a momentous revolution by allowing scientists to recreate the genetic code of long-extinct animals.

The technology is at the center of a proposal by the biotech business Colossal to reintroduce the Woolly Mammoth by 2027. In September, the company reported receiving $15 million in funding and would try to have the first calves in “four to six years .”They will rewild mammoth herds in the Arctic.

Deciphering Thylacine

The first step in bringing back a species to life is fully understanding its DNA code. Researchers would then be able to use CRISPR to alter the coding of cells from a similar species. The Tasmanian tiger, for example, is connected to the mouse-like dunnart, a marsupial species. “It turns out that the dunnart is the closest to a thylacine of any living marsupial,” Pask says.

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You can turn a dunnart cell into a Tasmanian tiger by editing all DNA differences. See it like transforming a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets into a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. You can keep parts of the characters, sentences, and words, but you will have to reorganize and reorder the content to make a completely new book.

In a report published in Nature Ecology & Evolution in 2017, Pask’s team decoded the complete genome of the Tasmanian tiger. However, according to Pask, the work needed to transform one species into another will take at least a decade.

“It depends on technological advancements over the next few years,” he says. The goal of the TIGRR Lab, as per Pask, is to harness gene-editing techniques created at places like Colossal to make faster progress in marsupial gene editing. 

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Should funds be wasted resurrecting the Dead?

Some conservation scientists have criticized de-extinction efforts, claiming that investing huge sums in bringing animals back to life could result in biodiversity loss. Furthermore, the argument against recreating species is that maintaining the population comes at a great expense. For Pask at least, the Tasmanian tiger was an excellent choice for de-extinction since it played a vital role in balancing Tasmania’s ecosystems and could do so again if they were reintroduced.

“The thylacine was our only apex predator, and its loss from the ecosystem destabilizes everything that sits beneath it,” Pask said. “A great example of this is Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease, which nearly wiped [that species] out. If you have these apex predators around like the thylacine—they pick off and eat the sick animals controlling the spread of diseases.”

tasmanian devil
Tasman devil, by Envato.com

Are we seeing Tasmanian tiger any time soon?

It is difficult to predict if we will see Tasmanian tigers roaming Australia in the next decade. Pask’s laboratory’s reputation and the funding place humanity on the path to such a future. The scientific developments in gene editing show that we’ve entered a new era where science can manipulate DNA to bring extinct species back to life. 

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The entire process of de-extinction wouldn’t be as simple as just breeding and dropping off baby tigers. It’s more likely that such a project would necessitate extensive monitoring and maintenance, and the impacts on the ecosystem as a whole are difficult to anticipate.

Understanding the complexity and interaction between species is critical, and any intervention must be thoroughly debated.