'Jurassic Park'? Scientists want to resurrect Australia's Tasmanian tiger

Is de-extinction realistic?
Nergis Firtina
A graphical representation of the internal structure of Tasmanian tiger joeys.
A graphical representation of the internal structure of Tasmanian tiger joeys.


Scientists in the US and Australia have announced a multi-million dollar project - resurrecting the extinct Tasmanian tiger.

The last known marsupial officially called a thylacine, died in the 1930s. According to the team, the extinct thylacine can be recreated using stem cells and gene-editing technology, and the first one could be "reintroduced" to the wild within 10 years.

"We would strongly advocate that first and foremost we need to protect our biodiversity from further extinctions, but unfortunately we are not seeing a slowing down in species loss. This technology offers a chance to correct this and could be applied in exceptional circumstances where cornerstone species have been lost," Andrew Pask, a professor at the University of Melbourne and head of its Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab, who is leading the initiative, told Discovery in an interview.

The project is a collaboration with the US-based Colossal Biosciences, founded by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, who is also working on a $15 million project to "de-extinct" the woolly mammoth in an altered form.

"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," Church told The Independent.

'Jurassic Park'? Scientists want to resurrect Australia's Tasmanian tiger
A Tasmanian tiger/thylacine

Sequencing the thylacine genome: A breakthrough

Thylacinus cynocephalus or thylacine, in short, was a relatively shy and nocturnal animal, with the general appearance of a medium-to-large-size canid, except for its stiff tail and abdominal pouch similar to that of a kangaroo. Though the species was largely extinct on the Australian mainland by around 2,000 years ago, it had survived in Tasmania. But, being an apex predator didn't go down well for humans.

In the 1800s, European settlers on the island blamed the animal for livestock losses and hunted them to the point of extinction. The last thylacine, named Benjamin, died from exposure in 1936 at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.

Now, resurrecting the Tasmanian tiger is no mean feat. It involves several complicated steps that rely on the latest technology.

"Our research proposes nine key steps to de-extinction of the thylacine. One of our biggest breakthroughs was sequencing the thylacine genome, providing a complete blueprint on how to essentially build a thylacine," said Pask.

According to the expert, the funding could help develop the technologies to bring back the species from extinction and even help safeguard other marsupials on the brink of disappearing.

"The funding will allow our lab to move forward and focus on three key areas: improving our understanding of the thylacine genome; developing techniques to use marsupial stem cells to make an embryo; and then successfully transferring the embryo into a host surrogate uterus, such as a dunnart or Tasmanian devil," said Pask.

Can we settle for hybrid animals?

But, hold your horses. 'De-extinction' is easier said than done.

Tom Gilbert, a professor at the University of Copenhagen's GLOBE Institute, said that recreating the full genome of a lost animal from DNA in old skeletons is "extremely challenging".

"We are unlikely to get the full genome sequence of the extinct species, thus we will never be able to fully recreate the genome of the lost form. There will always be some parts that can't be changed. They will have to cherry-pick what changes to make. And thus the result will be a hybrid," Gilbert told CNN via email.

But the real benefit of such a project is the "awesomeness" of it, he added. "Doing it seems very justified to me simply because it will excite people about science, nature, conservation. And we sure as hell need that in the wonderful citizens of our world if we are to survive into the future. But ... do the stakeholders realize what they will get will not be the thylacine but some imperfect hybrid? What we don't need is yet more people disappointed (or) feeling cheated by science," he said.

While we're very excited about the prospects of "de-extinction", all we can do is wait and watch.

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