It’s time to place your bets on which event will happen first – the discovery of a live Tasmanian tiger or the creation of a new thylacine using DNA from a well-preserved piece of one of the creatures that most scientists believe went extinct decades ago. How much would you wager on your choice? Would you bet on neither one happening? Would you put you money on a safer bet … like the lottery?
A report in the New Zealand Herald may raise the odds for a thylacine clone appearing in the near future. A Tasmanian tiger skin that was filed in a drawer and forgotten since 1923 has been rediscovered and is now in the hands of a museum director working with the Lazarus Project – a group of researchers trying to bring Australia’s southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus) back from extinction using somatic cell nuclear transfer – a technique which uses DNA from a somatic cell (one that is not sperm or egg cell) to create a nucleus that is then placed in an egg cell (after its own nucleus is removed) of a very close relative of the original species. The somatic cell nucleus is reprogrammed by the egg to become and egg nucleus and then the egg is stimulated by an electric shock to start dividing and eventually becoming a clone of the original extinct species.
Well, that’s the theory. It helps if the cells of the extinct species are in good shape, which brings us back the skin. It was purchased in 1923 (when there were still a few live thylacines left) by a Whanganui, New Zealand, collector named Archie Robertson who put it in a drawer with a Tasmanian devil skin, where it stayed until long after his death when his family found it in 1999. They lent the skins to the Kahutara Taxidermy Museum in Featherston, New Zealand, where they were untouched again until 2018 when four students from Victoria University recognized the Tasmanian tiger skin. It was then sold to the National Museum of Australia for an undisclosed sum, estimated to be around $200,000, and added to the database of 78 known thylacine skins worldwide.
"Apparently there is the potential for looking at maybe cloning parts of it.”
Kahutara Museum owner John McCosh says the skin is very well-preserved compared to others he’s seen, which is why former Australian Museum director Mike Archer, who is involved with the Lazarus Project, wants to attempt to clone the thylacine next. However, he’d like to have some success with the frog fist. While the DNA has been replicating, they still don’t have a tadpole.
Part of the problem, which will be even bigger with the thylacine, is finding a host species close enough to the extinct one. University of Melbourne biologist Andrew Pask, who announced in late 2017 that he had successfully sequenced the entire genome of a Tasmanian tiger, thinks the numbat is the closest species, while Archer would rather use the Tasmanian devil. Since neither of them is a thylacine, the clone will not be a perfect copy.
Will it close enough for your bookie to pay off? That’s why they call it gambling.