It’s been nearly 100 years since the Tasmanian tiger went extinct – but the marsupial may live again.
Earlier this year, scientists at the University of Melbourne established a research lab dedicated to developing technologies that could bring back the carnivorous marsupial, officially known as the thylacine, which died in the 1930s, and reintroduce it to its native Australian island. from Tasmania.
Now, with a $5 million grant from earlier this year and a new partnership with a Texas genetic engineering company called Colossal Biosciences, which is also working on a project toIn an altered form and returning it to the Arctic tundra, scientists are taking advantage of advances in genetics, retrieval of ancient DNA and artificial reproduction to bring the animal back to the land of the living.
The project involves several complicated steps, but scientists say the marsupial can be recreated using stem cells and gene-editing reproductive technology. The team plans to take stem cells from a living marsupial species with similar DNA and turn them into “thylacin” cells to “bring back” the extinct species – or a very close approximation to it – using gene-editing technology.
“We are using the latest DNA engineering technologies and developing new technologies for marsupial stem cell derivation and assisted reproduction techniques… which is leading the research at the University of Melbourne, he told CBS News.
New marsupial-specific assisted reproductive technologies will be needed to use stem cells to make an embryo, which will require the construction of artificial wombs.
“I think we’re looking at a decade or more to recover the animal. So for most rewilding efforts of this scope, you would want to study the animal very closely in large captive areas in Tasmania to make sure it’s back into the ecosystem before releasing them across the island. It would potentially take another 10 years to make sure we’re doing this as carefully as possible,” Pask said.
Pask says the implications of the technology his team is developing are enormous for preserving the species that remain, as well as sustaining current extinction projects.
“The ability to edit marsupial genes opens up possibilities to save northern quolls from extinction, the ability to generate marsupial stem cells and then whole animals allows us to think about restoring marsupial species lost in wildfires to their original habitats once the vegetation has regenerated”. said Pask.
The ultimate goal with this technology is to restore these species to the wild, where they played absolutely essential roles in the ecosystem – but that would have to be done very carefully.
“These things are sorely needed to protect us from further loss of biodiversity. And in addition to marsupials, these technologies can be applied to many other vertebrate species,” Pask said.
The thylacine was Australia’s only marsupial predator. About 2,000 years ago, it disappeared from almost everywhere except the island of Tasmania. But when European settlers arrived on the island in the 1800s, they believed the thylacine, which looks like a dog and has stripes on its back, was a threat to livestock and hunted it to the point of extinction.
The last thylacine to live in captivity died of exposure at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1936, just two months after thylacines were granted protection status – but overhunting, combined with factors such as habitat destruction and introduced diseases , led to the rapid extinction of the species.
If successful, this initiative would represent a remarkable achievement for researchers trying it, and would mark the first de-extinction event in history — but many outside experts are skeptical of the science behind it and believe there are significant limitations to de-extinction.
“De-extinction is a fairy tale science,” associate professor Jeremy Austin of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s pretty clear to people like me that the de-extinction of thylacines or mammoths is more about media attention to scientists and less about doing serious science.”
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