It’s been nearly 100 years since the Tasmanian tiger went extinct – but the marsupial may live again.
Earlier this year, scientists at the University of Melbourne set up a research lab dedicated to developing technologies that could reintroduce the carnivorous marsupial, officially known as the thylacine, which went extinct in the 1930s, back to the Australian island of Tasmania.
Now, with a $5 million grant from earlier this year, and a new partnership with a Texas-based genetic engineering company called Colossal Biosciences, which is also working on a project toin an altered form and return it to the Arctic tundra, scientists are leveraging advances in genetics, ancient DNA recovery and artificial breeding to bring the animal back to the land of the living.
The project involves many complex steps, but scientists say the marsupial can be recreated using stem cells and reproductive gene-editing technology. The team plans to take stem cells from a living species of marsupial with similar DNA and turn them into ‘thylacin’ cells to ‘bring back’ the extinct species – or a very close approximation of it – using gene editing technology.
“We are using the latest DNA engineering technologies and developing new technology for the production of marsupial stem cells and assisted reproduction techniques…We also have a huge team of scientists working to solve and problems we face along the way,” said Professor Andrew Pask . who is leading the research at the University of Melbourne, told CBS News.
New marsupial-specific assisted reproductive technologies will be needed to use stem cells to create an embryo, which will require the construction of artificial wombs.
“I think we’re looking at a decade or so to get the animal back. Then, for most rewilding efforts of this scope, you’d want to study the animal very carefully in large captive areas in Tasmania to make sure it fits back into ecosystem before releasing them across the entire island. That would potentially take another 10 years to make sure we’re doing it as carefully as possible,” Pask said.
Pask says the implications of the technology his team is developing are huge for the conservation of remaining species, as well as supporting current release projects.
“The ability to gene-edit marsupials opens up possibilities to save northern marsupials from extinction, the ability to create marsupial stem cells and then whole animals enables us to think about restoring marsupial species lost in fires to their original habitats once they regenerate the vegetation”. Pask said.
The ultimate goal with this technology is to restore these species to the wild, where they played absolutely essential roles in the ecosystem — but it would have to be done very carefully.
“These things are critical to protecting us from further biodiversity loss. And then, beyond marsupials, these technologies could be applied to many other vertebrate species,” Pask said.
The thylacine was Australia’s only top marsupial predator. About 2,000 years ago, it disappeared from almost everywhere except the island of Tasmania. But when European settlers arrived on the island in the 1800s, they believed that the thylacine, which looks like a dog and has stripes on its back, was a threat to livestock and hunted it to extinction.
The last thylacine in captivity died from exposure at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1936, just two months after thylacines had been given protected status — but overhunting, combined with factors such as habitat destruction and the introduction disease, led to the rapid extinction of the species.
If successful, this initiative would represent a remarkable achievement for the researchers attempting it and mark the first de-extinction event in history – but many outside experts are skeptical of the science behind it and believe there are significant limitations to de-extinction.
“De-extinction is fairy-tale science,” Associate Professor Jeremy Austin from the Australian Center for Ancient DNA told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s very clear to people like me that the thylacine or mammoth extermination is more about media attention for scientists and less about serious science.”
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