Back from the dead: How scientists aim to bring Tasmanian tiger back from extinction

Back from the dead: How scientists aim to bring Tasmanian tiger back from extinction
‘De-extinction’ company already planning to return woolly mammoths to Arctic tundra turn attention to more recently lost species

The Tasmanian tiger has been extinct for almost a century, but scientists now claim they are able to resurrect the lost species and return it to the wild.

An organisation specialising in “breakthrough genetic engineering” and which describes itself as a “de-extinction company”, has said it has already begun work on bringing back the species, which is properly known as the thylacine.

If the process is successful, the company claims the return of the Tasmanian tiger “has the potential to re-balance the Tasmanian and broader Australian ecosystems,” which have suffered biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation since the loss of the predator.

The species was largely extinct across the Australian mainland by around 2,000 years ago but survived in considerable numbers in Tasmania. Here the species was hunted to extinction by 1930 after the animals were said to have killed sheep.

The distinctive striped animals resemble dogs or foxes more closely than tigers, however, they are marsupials, and as such have abdominal pouches like kangaroos.

The US-based company behind the plans to bring the animal back from extinction, Colossal, says it is the first to apply CRISPR gene-editing technology for the purposes of species de-extinction.

The firm announced plans to bring back the woolly mammoth to the Arctic Tundra last September.

The team working on that project now has over 35 scientists spanning various functional areas including cell engineering, stem cell biology, embryology, computational biology, and genome engineering as well as three laboratories focused on the mission for mammoth de-extinction.

Colossal said it is now assembling an expert thylacine team and is near completion of its new dedicated thylacine laboratory, which it is building in collaboration with the University of Melbourne.

<p>A pair of captive thylacines photographed in 1902 – within three decades the species would be extinct</p>

A pair of captive thylacines photographed in 1902 – within three decades the species would be extinct

Dr Andrew Pask, a marsupial evolutionary biologist and an expert on the Tasmanian tiger, is leading the team.

He said: “The Tasmanian tiger is iconic in Australian culture. We’re excited to be part of this team in bringing back this unique, cornerstone species that mankind previously eradicated from the planet.”

“The technology and key learnings from this project will also influence the next generation of marsupial conservation efforts. Additionally, rewilding the thylacine to the Tasmanian landscape can significantly curb the destruction of this natural habitat due to invasive species.”

Dr George Church, Colossal Co-Founder said: “Andrew and his lab have made tremendous advances in marsupial research, gestation, thylacine imaging, and tissue sampling. Colossal is excited to provide the necessary genetic editing technology and computational biology to bring this project, and the thylacine, to life. It’s an incredible collaboration and project with far-reaching benefits for animal conservation efforts at large.”

“In a statement, the company said: “The rewilding of species to their original habitats has been shown to effectively restore and revitalise damaged ecosystems with examples such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, and the Tasmanian Devil to Australia. Though rewilding any species is a long and layered process, the creation of a proxy species of the Thylacine has the potential to similarly restore ecosystems that are missing keystone species.”

One of the organisations working alongside Colossal is the environmental conservation group WildArk. Kirstin Scholz, the general manager of WildArk Australia said: “With many conservation projects across Australia and Tasmania, this particular project is near and dear to my heart.

“Seeing first-hand the rapid loss of biodiversity that Australia has been facing, it brings me great joy to support a company who is dedicated to not just preventing further extinction but also in some cases, reversing it.”