Could the Tasmanian tiger re-emerge?


University of Melbourne researchers plan to bring the thylacine back from the grave.

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Image by F.W. Goding, Baker; E.J. Keller

By Alfie Sloman

The University of Melbourne was recently donated a $5 million philanthropic gift, which has been funnelled into establishing a world leading research lab dedicated to the de-extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, Australia’s only apex marsupial predator. De-extinction, as the name implies, refers to scientifically undoing an extinction using modern techniques in cloning and ecology to reintroduce a previously eradicated species.

The tiger, or ‘thylacine’ was once widespread across all of Australia, but by the time of the arrival of European colonists in the 18th century the species was isolated to the island of Tasmania. It was soon hunted to near extinction, with the colonists believing they posed a threat to their sheep populations. A few were kept in captivity, and the last known tiger died in 1936 in a conservation institution. They were often described as a long dog with stripes, a big head and a stiff tail, and were believed to be very shy and quiet.

It is undeniable that the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger is down to entitled human actions, but is it our right to bring them back? And how would this even be accomplished?

The research is currently led by Professor Andrew Pask, a world-renowned expert in de-extinction and wildlife conservation. He believes that the habitat structure in Tasmania has been left fairly unchanged which makes the tiger a prime subject for de-extinction, as it would readily reoccupy its former niche. Many members of the field argue that the science required for such a feat is written about in fairy tales, and is unattainable with our current understanding and technologies. However, the researchers have released a nine step plan of which the first two have already been completed.

Step one included mapping the entire genome of the thylacine from existing biological samples, which releases a genetic blueprint, or set of instructions on how to build the species. Step two involved sequencing the genome of several of the tiger’s closest living relatives, including the Dunnart or Marsupial mouse. The species with the closest matching DNA will provide a baseline that will then be transformed into the Tasmanian tiger’s genome. The next step, currently in development, is a large and extensive computational project comparing the marsupial genomes to identify all the differences that would need to be edited into the host genome to create a Tasmanian tiger cell. Step four is crucial for the practical side of the de-extinction, as it involves the extraction of stem cells from the chosen species, and running tests to predict the limits of the available technology. Steps five through seven involve developing the reproductive technologies that would allow a stem cell to form into an embryo. Finally steps eight and nine are where marsupials in particular hold a greater advantage in de-extinction than other species. All marsupials complete their development in a pouch, where they grow and suckle milk. But during the de-extinction process this can be swapped with bottle feeding and, unlike most animals, won’t have complex gestation times, as a range of host species can be used.

These nine steps could take up to a decade or more, but with the current advancements in technology and knowledge, many believe that the de-extinction process is not only feasible, but possible in the near future. Advances will be required particularly in the areas of computation and incubation techniques. Melbourne continues to lead the field in this research.

As well as the scientific challenges, researchers also face a complex moral argument involved with de-extinction. Many argue that just because we have the ability to bring extinct animals back doesn’t mean we should. It is within human nature not to predict the negative impacts of their actions (or to simply ignore them), but is the answer to provide reparations for our actions or to just completely undo them? Bringing the Tasmanian tiger back would give the opportunity to atone for precipitating their demise, but if the behavioural causes of that original misdeed are not addressed, this catharsis may be short-lived.