The Tasmanian tiger, aka the thylacine, was plunged into extinction some 80 years ago when the last living individual died at Hobart Zoo, Washington DC, in 1936. Now, with the help of gene editing and jars of pickled thylacine pups, scientists are increasingly confident they will soon roam the Earth once again.
Just a few months ago in December 2017, a team of scientists from the University of Melbourne sequenced the entire genome of this extinct Australian beast using thirteen thylacine joeys preserved in alcohol – a pretty amazing task in itself. Professor Andrew Pask, one of the researchers on the team, has now said that this information could be used to resurrect the species from extinction.
The main hurdle to this potential feat is the lack of living thylacine relatives. By comparison, resurrecting a mammoth is relatively simple because we still have access to many of their living relatives, such as the Asian Elephant, which we can use to help reconstruct extinction animals. Tasmanian tigers, however, were unique marsupial with massively different genetic make-up to any living creature
Fortunately, CRISPR gene-editing has come along leaps and bounds in recent years. This revolutionary technique gives scientists even more precision to play around with genes, potentially allowing them to “bridge the gap” between the living and the extinct species.
“What you have to do is take that elephant DNA and make all the changes you see in the mammoth genome on the elephant’s genetic blueprint. Basically, you’re just editing the [elephant] DNA to make it look like a mammoth,” Professor Andrew Pask, University of Melbourne, told news.com.au.
“You would have to make a lot more changes to make the numbat [banded anteater] DNA look like a thylacine but the technology for making those changes has gotten exponentially easier in the last five or so years because of the people who are doing the mammoth work.”
“That’s something that’s not science fiction anymore, it’s science fact,” Pask added.
As you might have guessed, humans and overhunting played a strong role in the thylacine's demise. That said, the recent genome study suggests poor genetic diversity could have also helped to doom the Tasmanian tiger even before the hunting.
After all these decades of extinction, the thylacine remains an iconic animal in the Aussie imagination, with many people believing that wild individuals still roam the outback. Just last year, a group of scientists launched a search for the Tasmanian tiger deep in the far north of Queensland, Australia. This was mainly off the back of numerous supposed sightings of the animal. Although a handful of scientists entertain the idea, many others think it is just optimistic-thinking. Perhaps in a decade or so, these claims won't sound so outlandish.