Biology

Move over, mammoths: De-extinction scientists to target thylacine next

Move over, mammoths: De-extinction scientists to target thylacine next
A still from newly-colorized video of Benjamin the thylacine, originally filmed in 1933
A still from newly-colorized video of Benjamin the thylacine, originally filmed in 1933
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A still from newly-colorized video of Benjamin the thylacine, originally filmed in 1933
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A still from newly-colorized video of Benjamin the thylacine, originally filmed in 1933
Professor Andrew Pask, leader of the TIGRR Lab, with a preserved thylacine fetus and taxidermy specimen
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Professor Andrew Pask, leader of the TIGRR Lab, with a preserved thylacine fetus and taxidermy specimen

Last year, genetic engineering company Colossal Biosciences unveiled its grand plans to resurrect the woolly mammoth, and now the team has revealed the second species on its de-extinction list – Australia’s lost thylacine. Partnering with a University of Melbourne lab, the project could revive the creature in about a decade.

The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, is a carnivorous marsupial that was once common across the Australian mainland, before competition with the dingo led to a sharp decline. A smaller population survived into the 20th century on the island of Tasmania, but the first European settlers considered it a pest and hunted it to the brink of extinction, with the last known thylacine dying in a zoo in 1936.

It’s a textbook example of humanity’s disregard for nature, but perhaps there’s a way to set things right by the thylacine, as well as living species that might be heading for a similar fate. The Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab at the University of Melbourne has been studying the genome of the creature and related species with the goal of eventually bringing it back from the dead.

“We completely wiped this animal off the face of the Earth,” Professor Andrew Pask, leader of the TIGRR Lab, told New Atlas. “So if we have developed the technology to bring it back, I feel like we owe it to that species to bring it back. Even if that is at a substantial cost.”

And now, the latest development could make that cost a little easier to swallow. TIGRR Lab has now announced a partnership with Colossal, the US-based genetics company founded by entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard geneticist George Church.

Colossal launched last year with US$15 million in seed funding, with the aim of resurrecting the mammoth. The thylacine will be the team’s second target species, allowing Colossal and TIGRR Lab to pool their research and resources towards a common goal.

Professor Andrew Pask, leader of the TIGRR Lab, with a preserved thylacine fetus and taxidermy specimen
Professor Andrew Pask, leader of the TIGRR Lab, with a preserved thylacine fetus and taxidermy specimen

TIGRR Lab has already sequenced the thylacine genome, and is currently investigating its closest living relatives to find the best match for a surrogate and a template genome to edit to be more thylacine-like. Colossal brings access to and experience with CRISPR gene editing tools.

“The question everyone asks is ‘how long until we see a living thylacine’ – and I’ve previously believed in 10 years’ time we would have an edited cell that we could then consider progressing into making into an animal,” said Pask. “With this partnership, I now believe that in 10 years’ time we could have our first living baby thylacine since they were hunted to extinction close to a century ago.”

Of course, the research raises plenty of ethical and social questions, not least of which was so eloquently summed up by Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!” It’s looking increasingly likely that regardless of whether these scientists could or should, they’re going to try anyway.

Sources: University of Melbourne, Colossal

3 comments
3 comments
stevendkaplan
Considering these two species most probably went extinct in part because of humans I think it’s perfectly ethical to want to bring them back and correct our mistake. Even if you try to say climate shift killed most of the mammoths there’s still the issue of the Wrangle island ones who survived to the dawn of civilization and were definitely were killed off by humans. On the other hand trying to bring back anything from further back in prehistory like dinosaurs is wrong. Nature never intended for them to survive this long so we should just leave them be.
Karmudjun
Nice article Michael - it is always inspiring when the boundaries of science are pushed back a little more. The woolly mammoth is not a threat that we know of - evidently the genome was too fragile after the last ice age and the elephant branch was able to adapt and overcome. I don't know if we NEED a Woolly Mammoth that can tolerate moderate weather, but hey, developments & proof of concept lead to things like novel vaccines! The Thylacine I'm not so sure about - if Dingos were able - with wanton human predation - to eradicate the Thylacine, will they be able to out compete dogs or cats and possibly control the invasive mammals of Australia?
TechGazer
Maybe do a bit of genetic tweaking so the thylacines favourite foods are bunnies and cane toads?

Mammoths might be quite useful too, since IIRC, their grazing turns tundra into forest, boosting carbon capture.