Scientists want to bring Tasmanian tiger back from extinction

Biosciences company says resurrecting the thylacine could help re-balance Australia's ecosystem after decades of loss

A colourised picture of the last-known Tasmanian tiger, from footage taken in 1933. US company Colossal Biosciences is trying to resurrect the marsupial predator. AFP
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A US company trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth also wants to bring the Tasmanian tiger back from extinction.

The animal, also called a thylacine, was a marsupial apex predator once widespread across Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.

While it became extinct eIsewhere in its range thousands of years ago, the thylacine survived on the island of Tasmania.

But following decades of persecution by European settlers, who claimed it preyed on sheep, the marsupial was declared extinct in the 1930s.

The last known individual died at Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936.

Colossal Biosciences has already said it wanted to combine genetic material from Asian elephants with frozen woolly mammoth DNA to bring back the giant creature.

The Dallas-based company was started by Harvard geneticist George Church and technology entrepreneur Ben Lamm in September 2021 with $15 million in seed funding.

It raised another $60 million six months after launching, despite doubts over the feasibility of resurrecting extinct species.

Winklevoss Capital Management, motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Paris Hilton are among its investors.

Colossal executives said bringing back the thylacine would help re-balance the Australian ecosystem, after decades of biodiversity loss.

Turning a cell into a living animal

The Tasmanian tiger had a wolf-like appearance and hunted other animals.

The shy marsupial had thick black stripes on its body and, fully grown, measured about 1.8 metres from its nose to the tip of its tail.

Colossal plans to take cells from the thylacine’s closest living relatives, such as the dunnart — an insect-eating marsupial the size of a mouse — and genetically engineer them with thylacine DNA.

Tasmanian tigers in captivity at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in Tasmania in 1918. AFP

“You’re actually putting all of those genomic changes into that living cell, and then in the end, you are left with a cell that is a thylacine cell, and you can turn that cell then back into a whole living animal,” said Andrew Pask, an evolutionary biologist who is leading Colossal’s efforts to revive the animal.

Critics have called such experiments a distraction and say if they succeed their effects on the climate and ecosystems would be unpredictable.

Thomas Gilbert, a paleo-geneticist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, tested the possibility of resurrecting the Christmas Island rat — also known as Maclear’s rat.

Mr Gilbert’s team had well-preserved DNA samples and abundant reference data from the animal’s cousin, the Norway rat.

Yet even with all that information, he said the researchers were unable to sequence the remaining 5 per cent of the Maclear’s rat’s genome — leaving out important attributes such as immunity and smell.

“If you have a million [genetic] differences between an elephant and a mammoth, you can’t necessarily change any one of those without there being a problem,” Mr Gilbert said.

“If I take a … Honda car, and if you try and put tractor tyres on it or truck tyres, it’s not going to work, right?”

But Michael Archer, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said efforts aimed at de-extinction were necessary.

“It may well be enormously challenging and certainly a lot of work, but we can be certain of one thing — extinct animals will definitely stay extinct if we don’t try these things,” he said.

“Some projects are moving forward quickly. Others will take more time. In principle, there is no fundamental reason why de-extinction should not be possible now or in the near future.”

Colossal’s most recent round of funding drew investment from entertainment world figures, including Australian actor Chris Hemsworth.

“The Tassie tiger’s extinction had a devastating effect on our ecosystem and we are thrilled to support the revolutionary conservation efforts that are being made by Dr Pask and the entire Colossal team,” the Thor star said.

Updated: August 17, 2022, 5:22 AM