The Tasmanian tiger could be released back into the wild within a decade after a US biotechnology company backed by the Winklevoss twins promised to recreate the animal nearly 90 years after it was declared extinct.
The last thylacine, the official name of the Tasmanian tiger that was the apex predator of the Australian island, died in 1936 in a zoo in Hobart. The wild population of the large carnivorous marsupial was eradicated by farmers and the local government, who paid a bounty on the animal in the 19th century to protect sheep.
Unconfirmed sightings of the striped, canine-like creature roaming the Tasmanian wilderness have increased its mythical status and raised hopes that the animal had somehow survived.
“It’s like our Loch Ness monster,” said Andrew Pask, a professor and evolutionary biologist at the University of Melbourne who leads the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research – or TIGRR – Lab, which has recreated the thylacine genome.
Pask’s lab will partner with Colossal Biosciences, which grew out of the work of George Church, a Harvard professor who was one of the creators of the Human Genome Project. The company is already working to recreate a woolly mammoth as part of its “de-extinction” plan.
The Dallas-based company has raised $75 million and is backed by investors including Silicon Valley venture capitalists Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Chris Hemsworth, the actor who plays Marvel’s “Thor.”
Colossal hopes to convert the gene editing processes it will use for the thylacine and mammoth for commercial use in humans.
Pask said the gene-editing techniques and tools Colossal could bring to the thylacine project would speed up reconstruction of the animal, which was first suggested as a possibility in the 1990s.
“It’s not a question of if, but when it could happen,” he said, predicting that living animals could be created within the decade.
Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm said a thylacine should be easier to recreate than a mammoth because of the higher quality of available genetic samples and the ease with which an embryo — initially the size of a grain of rice — can be given birth in the lab. using surrogate animals and artificial pouches.
“It’s very possible that the thylacine is born before the mammoth,” he said.
However, the editing process will be more complex because the thylacine pedigree is more complicated than that of the mammoth. The canine appearance of the animal is misleading as it is a marsupial. Its closest relative is a tiny mouse-like creature called a fat-tailed dunnart, which could prove to be the unlikely surrogate for the Tasmanian tiger’s rebirth.
Pask said the engineering work to bring back the thylacine would also help protect against the extinction of other animals caused by natural disasters, such as wildfires, or climate change at a time when even the koala has been put on the endangered list.
“Biobanking is underway, but we don’t have the technology to regenerate species. This project can deliver that. We can recreate 100 koalas or quolls [a carnivorous marsupial] in the lab,” he said.
Euan Ritchie, a professor of ecology at Deakin University in Melbourne, said recreating a thylacine would be a “huge scientific achievement”.
But he remained skeptical of the challenge of not only recreating an extinct animal, but also restoring a functioning population that could sustain itself. “If we can’t do that, you have to ask yourself why we are doing this. It’s gonna be a bit like Jurassic Park‘ said Ritchie.
He added that the focus should be on preserving endangered animals. “It’s much cheaper and more effective to keep them alive than to resurrect populations from the freezer,” he said.
However, the possible reintroduction of thylacines to Tasmania has not been widely welcomed. According to Pask, some sheep farmers have already expressed their concerns. But he added, “They don’t even eat sheep.”
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