Mar 04, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Multimillion-Dollar Research Lab Will Attempt to De-Extinct the Tasmanian Tiger

Money talks … thylacine walks

That could be the motto of the Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab which just received a $5 million philanthropic gift to be used to de-extinct the currently extinct (or possibly not) Thylacine – more popularly known as the Tasmanian tiger. Is $5 million the key to bringing back the famous marsupial killed off by human expansion and popularized by human guilt? Is this the best use of $5 million?

“The funding will allow our lab to move forward and focus on three key areas: improving our understanding of the thylacine genome; developing techniques to use marsupial stem cells to make an embryo; and then successfully transferring the embryo into a host surrogate uterus, such as a dunnart or Tasmanian devil.”

Professor Andrew Pask of the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne announced the gift in a university press release. Pask is indirectly responsible for the $5 million bequeathment -- the donation comes from the Wilson Family Trust via trustee Russell Wilson, who says he and his family are passionate about bringing back the thylacine learned of Pask’s work from videos on YouTube. That prompted the donation to the University of Melbourne and the establishment of the TIGRR lab headed by Professor Pask.

“Our team has a diverse skill set in the fields of morphology, developmental biology, evolution, stem cell biology, genetics (incl. population), genomics, bioinformatics and conservation. Together, we possess the skills and technical know-how to accelerate the field of conservation genetics and de-extinction.”

Along with the announcement of the gift, Pask laid out the lab’s nine-step plan to de-extinct the thylacine – last seen officially alive in 1936, although rumors of its existence and possible photos and recordings pop up frequently. A number of the steps have been accomplished – the thylacine genome has been completed and released, and last month researchers from another group, the DNA Zoo, sequenced the genome of the Australian numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), a close striped cousin of the Tasmanian tiger – a key to completing step 2 which is selecting a marsupial relative to provide genes to edit into thylacine genes. While TIGRR plans to use the dunnart, the numbat option is available.

With steps 1 and 2 completed, the $5 million will go to completing steps 3 and 4. Step 3 is identifying the differences between the dunnart and thylacine genomes and editing a dunnart stem cell into a thylacine stem cell. Step 4 is more of a ‘noble cause’ step – TIGRR wants to build a bio-bank filled with data and cells for endangered marsupials. That step will keep the critics and ethicists at bay while the lab completes steps 5 through 9 – using living gene-edited stem cells to create a thylacine embryo, transfer it into a host uterus, nurture it to birth and care for it to adulthood and possible natural reproduction.

Those last big steps are expected to take a decade to complete. Is $5 million enough? That’s a good question, especially with TIGRR committed to doing research on other engendered marsupials – a number that is growing quickly – in tandem with de-extincting the thylacine.

“Thanks to this generous funding we’re at a turning point where we can develop the technologies to potentially bring back a species from extinction and help safeguard other marsupials on the brink of disappearing.”

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Are the days of guilt over the extinction of the thylacine finally over?

Professor Pask thinks it’s enough and his TIGRR team can do the job. Which brings us to the last question – is it the right job to do? It’s too late to ask – the money has already been spent – but it should be considered for future de-extinction proposals. Is it better to satiate human guilt with de-extinction or prevent guilt with conservation and preservation? Should the Tasmanian tiger be the tragic symbol for one … or the inspirational symbol for the other?

It's all about money … and guilt.

Paul Seaburn
Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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