A project to recreate the Tasmanian tiger from old and modern genes is underway in Melbourne
Australian scientists want to use advanced genetic engineering techniques to make an artificial living cell of a Tasmanian tiger and then produce in a tube new members of the extinct species.
The project is being pursued by a lab at the University of Melbourne, which announced this week that it has partnered with a Dallas-based genetics firm called Colossal Biosciences. The Australian lab, known by the acronym TIGRR, needs American expertise and computational power to recreate the animal's genome based on sequencing it did in previous years. They say their gene data is the best available for an extinct animal so far, giving them high hopes of success.
"A lot of the challenges with our efforts can be overcome by an army of scientists working on the same problems simultaneously, conducting and collaborating on the many experiments to accelerate discoveries," said Professor Andrew Pask, the head of TIGRR. "With this partnership, we will now have the army we need to make this happen."
The collaboration was made possible by a generous grant received by the university after the TIGRR team explained their plan in March, the announcement said. Pask and his people want to use the genome of the fat-tailed dunnart, a small marsupial animal closely related to the thylacine - as the Tasmanian tiger is also called - as the base for the recreated genome. Parts of genes from other species will be grafted onto it to recreate a close approximation of the DNA of the thylacine.
The animal was dubbed a tiger due to the distinctive stripes on its lower back, but its appearance was the result of convergent evolution, which made it the only known marsupial apex predator. It was wiped out in Tasmania by human hunters and new animal competitors like dingos in the first half of the 20th century.
The TIGRR lab will focus on developing techniques for in-vitro gestation of marsupials. This type of mammal is distinct for giving birth to tiny, barely viable babies, which spend weeks or months feeding and growing in a mother's abdominal pouch before developing autonomy. This means their gestation is comparatively simple and could be recreated artificially, the scientists hope.
Pask believes that a living baby thylacine could see the light of day in about a decade following the new boost given to the project by the collaboration with Colossal.