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Can science bring the Tasmanian tiger back from extinction?

Benjamin, the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity, died in September 1936. (Credit: Getty Images)

The last thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, died in captivity in September 1936, more than 80 years ago.

A creature that first appeared 4 million years ago extinct thylacine for a number of reasons, such as encroachment of man on its territory, and disease.

 

But now, thanks to advances in DNA testing, some scientists believe that it is possible to bring it back from extinction.

According to a new study in Nature, Ecology and Evolution, scientists have been able to get the full nuclear genome of the thylacine. A team led by developmental geneticist Andrew Pask of the University of Melbourne sampled tissue from a one-month-old thylacine found in 1909 in his mother’s pouch. The sample was preserved in alcohol.

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(File photo: Don Colgan, Head of Evolutionary Biology at the Australian Museum, saith the basis of a model of a Tasmanian Tiger at a media conference in Sydney on May 4, 2000, relating to the quality of DNA extracted from the heart -, liver -, muscle -, and bone marrow tissue samples from a 134-year-old Tiger monster (R) preserved in alcohol. Credit: Anp)

Tasmanian tigers have long been a source of curiosity, almost 80 years after their extinction, because of their strange appearance.

“They were bizarre and unusual species. There was nothing else like them in the world at the time,” Charles Feigin of the University of Melbourne, Australia, said in a commentary that is obtained by Nature.com. “They look just like a dog or a wolf, but they are a marsupial.”

The oldest thylacine, known as Dickson’s thylacine, first apepared to 23 million years ago, according to Australia’s Lost Kingdoms. The largest version, known as Thylacinus potens, grew to the size of a wolf and survived until about 8 million years ago.

The nuclear genome contains significant amounts of information about the thylacine population, that the team suspects began to shrink between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago, before man lived in what is now known as Australia. Feigin is of the opinion that a cooling of the climate has led to the habitat of both the tylacine, as well as the Tasmanian devil, the shrink.

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Can it be done?

University of Melbourne associate professor Andrew Pask said that the passing of the human genome is the first step in the direction to bring it back, but warned a return would not happen anytime soon.

“It is technically the first step is to have the us back, but we are still a long way to the opportunity,” Pask said, according to Nature.com. “We would still need to develop a marsupial animal model for the hosting of the thylacine genome, such as work carried out to his mammoth genes in the modern elephant.”

Gene sequencing is still a relatively new technology that has been around since the early 1970s, but Pask is of the opinion that it is our job to try to bring it back if we can.

“Ethically, we owe it to species, the species that we swept,” Pask added. “If we bring it back, that we have to do.”

Others, however, are more sceptical about whether science can actually bring back the Tasmanian tiger is threatened with extinction.

University of California, Santa Cruz evolutionary geneticist Beth Shapiro has worked for and with the genome sequencing of extinct animals and said that they can’t be brought back.

“The thylacine is extinct, because we made it so. We can’t bring back,” Shapiro said. “When I see the videos or pictures of the last thylacines, these are strictly reminders of the urgent need to develop technologies to stop other species from extinction.”

 

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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