There are multiple camps any discussion about the Tasmanian tiger or Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus). There is the camp that believes sightings of the animal are real and they’re hiding on both Tasmania and Australia. There is the extinction camp which believes the last known member of the species died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936, 2,000 years after they went extinct on the Australian mainland. A subset of this group is the de-extinction camp which believes the creature can be brought back by resequencing its genome. Unfortunately, the museum samples of thylacines don’t provide enough useful DNA. That’s where today’s news may excite this camp – researchers at the DNA Zoo have sequenced the genome of the Australian numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), a close striped cousin of the Tasmanian tiger that descended from the same species and share as much as 95% of their DNA. Will the de-extinction camp be the first to raise the Thylacine flag?
"No doubt this will be more challenging than the famous bid to resurrect the woolly mammoth using DNA from the Asian elephant. But the release of the numbat genome makes the thylacine’s resurrection a more realistic prospect than ever before."
Dr. Parwinder Kaur, an award-winning scientist and the Director of Director of the DNA Zoo Australia, explained the connection between numbats and Thylacines in an article on the website The Conversation. The DNA Zoo is a consortium focused on conservation efforts through the rapid generation and release of high-quality genomics resources. The termite-eating, stripe-wearing numbat once lived throughout southern Australia but now fewer than 1,000 exist in small groups in Western Australia. Numbats and thylacines shared a common ancestor – the Dasyuromorphia, which lived between 35 million and 41 million years ago. That is actually a short period in evolutionary time, so it’s not surprising that the two species share 95% of their DNA. The key for DNA Zoo Australia is to hopefully have enough numbat genome to fill in the gaps in the Thylacine genome using CRISPR gene-editing technology.
“There is a still a long road ahead before the thylacine could be cloned. But if it works, the end goal of any de-extinction effort surely is to reintroduce animals to the wild.”
Dr. Kaur admits that the DNA Zoo’s main goal is to save the numbat from extinction, but she’s excited about the idea that cloning a Thylacine could be done in parallel. Unlike most extinct species, the habitat of the Tasmanian tiger still exists today, so the clone would not be doomed to life in an artificial preserve. That habitat would aid in the survival and revival of the species – provided humans don’t get in the way … again. Barring that, Kaur sees this as a noble cause for Tasmania.
“There is no question it could be put back into the Tasmanian bush. There is also good reason to do so: the thylacine was Tasmania’s key carnivore. Putting it back atop the food chain could help restabilise ecosystems that are under threat.”
Unlike in the Jurassic Park movies, de-extincting the Thylacine doesn’t seem to have a downside … other than making humans feel less guilty about extincting them in the first place. This is not an easy way out of conservation, controlling pollution, reducing climate change and all of the other endeavors we top-of-the-food-chain humans can do for our fellow Earth creatures.
As Dr. Kaur says, it’s no longer science fiction to bring back the Thylacine. Let’s hope a dystopian world still is.