In 2017, a team of researchers used a 108-year-old, alcohol-preserved specimen of a young Tasmanian tiger and used it to sequence the entire genome of the extinct thylacine species. While speculation at the time centered on using this to possibly bring back the thylacine using a closely related marsupial species, recent news suggests a better approach might be to use it the search for living specimens – and a company in Australia has used it to develop a “DNA probe” that can be used to test soil and and other DNA-containing environmental elements to determine if they contain evidence of a living thylacine. Is this the tool to finally find the holy grail of lost species?
“Every living creature leaves traces of their DNA in their surrounding environment (through skin cells, and other bodily secretions), which is called eDNA. It is our job to find it! eDNA provides evidence as to what is or isn't present in the environment - it's like a genetic fingerprint.”
EnviroDNA, based in Victoria, was contacted by well-known thylacine hunter Michael Moss to develop an eDNA test for the thylacine. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is DNA that is collected from environmental samples such as soil, water, and even air rather than directly from an animal. This eDNA comes from feces, mucus, shed skin, carcasses, discarded fur and other things left by living creatures. As the EnviroDNA points out, its researchers had some of the work done for them by a University of Melbourne research team which sequenced the genome from a young thylacine taken directly from its mother’s pouch and kept by Museums Victoria. It had intact DNA and the alcohol preservative did not harm it the way chemicals can. All that was needed now was a way to test the probe.
“As a positive control to test that the probe works, Moss sent a thylacine hair sample obtained from a museum specimen to EnviroDNA’s laboratory. Subsequently, our team was successful in obtaining a positive signal from DNA extracted from the hair sample using the newly created probe.”
Michael Moss hired EnviroDNA in hopes that a probe would allow him to better hunt for a living specimen. He claims to have video footage of a Tasmanian tiger taken in 1998 and is frequently contacted by people who claim to have seen one. Now he has a tool to probe the area of the sighting for DNA.
Will Moss finally find the thylacine? Or will the DNA samples be from another lookalike species – as was the case in Scotland recently when a massive DNA test on waters of Loch Ness turned up nothing that could not be identified? Only time – and samples – will tell.