Aug 18, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Group Vows to De-Extinct Tasmanian Tiger in 10 Years – Unless a Live One Shows Up First

De-extinction is back in the news with a vengeance recently as CRISPR gene editing technology continues to improve, more animal genomes are sequenced and climate change frees entire frozen carcasses of mammoths, giant sloths, extinct wolves and other recently wiped-out species. A company in Texas announced earlier this week that it is focused on de-extincting the woolly mammoth and reintroducing herds of them onto tundras in Siberia and northern Canada as a way to bring them back, potentially slow climate change as they graze and change the ecology of the far north, and possibly provide meat and skins the likes of which haven’t been eaten or worn in 5,000 years. Now, that same company announced a dual focus – it is working to de-extinct the thylacine – better known as the Tasmanian tiger – within ten years. Can it be done? Will they create a thylacine from DNA before a long-hidden specimen walks out of the outback?

“So excited to partner with @itiscolossal @federallamm to continue our work on the thylacine - very exciting times ahead for marsupial biology!”

Dr. Andrew Pask is the point person for this project – he is a Professor of Biosciences at University of Melbourne in the TIGRR (Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research) Lab and a member of the scientific advisory board at Colossal Biosciences, the company committed to “jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat” and “reawaken the lost wilds of Earth” using breakthroughs in CRISPR and genetic engineering … starting with the woolly mammoth and continuing with the thylacine. The TIGGR lab was founded in March 2022 with a $5 million philanthropic gift to the University of Melbourne – its charter is develop technologies to de-extinct the thylacine and then use those tools to help preserve other living but threatened species.

“Our research proposes nine key steps to de-extinction of the thylacine. One of our biggest breakthroughs was sequencing the thylacine genome, providing a complete blueprint on how to essentially build a thylacine.”

Park is the perfect scientist for the job – he led the project to assemble the first complete genome of the thylacine using specimens which had been preserved in alcohol. Fortunately, while the last living thylacine died in the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1936, there are many embryos and young specimens also preserved in alcohol and other stabilizing fluids However, to get to the next step, more funding is needed. That is where Colossal Biosciences comes in. The Texas-based biotech company announced it will invest $10 million in the University of Melbourne’s Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab.

“(This is “the most significant contribution to marsupial conservation research in Australia to date.”

With the funding and the scientists from Colossal Biosciences now on his 50-person team, Park says they will produce “a de-extincted thylacine-ish thing” in 10 years. That is a clear signal that the end result will not be an identical clone of a thylacine from before 1936 but a “thylacine-ish thing” created using a close relative of the thylacine – a dunnart. For those of you not up on your Australian marsupials, the dunnart, while being the closest living relative of the dog-sized apex carnivore, is a mouse-sized insectivore. The researchers will have to use CRISPR to edit a dunnart cell into a thylacine cell, then fuse it to a dunnart egg in order to hopefully produce a thylacine embryo, which will then be implanted into a surrogate. For the woolly mammoth, this procedure will use an Asian elephant which has a similar physical and womb size, but neither the dunnart nor the possum-sized numbat (also an insectivore) are that close to a thylacine, so many believe an artificial womb will eventually be required. Of course, the announcement said “within ten years” so anything could happen – and the research will also be applicable for developing reproductive improvements in in vitro fertilization and non-womb gestation for help save other endangered marsupials.

“Fortunately, the habitat in Tasmania has remained relatively unchanged, providing the perfect environment to re-introduce the thylacine and enabling it to reoccupy its niche.”

Assuming all of that happens, the de-extincted thylacines will be living in the same environment as their last living ancestor 100 years ago, so its chances of successful reintroduction are good … and definitely better than those of the woolly mammoth, which went extinct 5,000 years ago and would be coming back to a warmer climate. In one way, both species will face one similar challenge – hunters. As both populations grow, they will undoubtedly expand into areas where they conflict with humans, and the human solution which contributed to their extinctions is hunting or culling. While some scientists suggest that woolly mammoth meat could e used to feed the poor (or the rich, depending how tough it is), that won’t be the case with the thylacine. It looks like we have at least ten years to figure out a solution.

Or do we?

Organizations such as the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia are constantly reporting sightings in Australia, where the animal is believed to have been extinct for a few thousand years, and Tasmania. Videos (like this one and this one) and photos are often close but not convincing, while no one seems to be finding feces, fur or other DNA samples. Yet the possibility is still there for a thylacine family to walk out of the outback and into the science books. If that happens, TIGGR and Colossal can still use their research to help the species grow and become reestablished … just sooner than ten years from now.

Many biologists think the money and the time would be better spent on conserving the many endangered species on Earth and educating and changing the human population to reverse the trend. They also cite the challenges of reintroducing a lab animal into the wild – the exhaustive efforts to save the California condors is a good example. Then there’s the sheer mathematical challenge of creating a diverse gene pool to keep the population from mutating or dying off due to inbreeding. Obviously, the benefits of the genetic research being done by TIGGR and Colossal Biosciences is beneficial … but at what cost?

All because we couldn’t – or didn’t care to – save the last two.

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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