We live in a pretty incredible time. There was once a time when an animal went extinct at that was the end of it. But now, a scientist in Australia could bring be bringing a species back to the world that was presumed extinct for decades. In December of 2017, National Geographic reported about scientists who believe that they have successfully sequenced the entire genome of a canine-like marsupial known as the Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine. The creature had been declared that it was hunted to extinction back in 1982.
According to Conservative Tribune:
A baby Tasmanian tiger collected 108 years ago has provided enough high-quality genetic material for researchers to sequence the animal’s entire genome, creating one of the best such genetic blueprints for an extinct animal.
Announced this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the genome has revealed details about the marsupial’s evolution and its decline toward extinction—and is a crucial step in plans to clone the creature and potentially bring the species back from the dead.
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was a wolf-size carnivorous marsupial once common across Australia. It became extinct on the mainland 3,000 years ago but survived on the southern island of Tasmania until human hunters, supposedly trying to protect their livestock, drove it to extinction in the early 20th century.
The last known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, but the species may have persisted in the wild into at least the 1940s. The species was declared extinct in 1982. (Learn more about de-extinction in National Geographic magazine.)
Researchers wanted a better look at thylacine genes to help them understand why the predatory marsupials evolved to look and act so much like wolves. These two groups of animals last shared a common ancestor 160 million years ago, and yet they independently led very similar lifestyles in different parts of the world.
“The thylacine and the dog [or wolf] is the closest example of convergent evolution that we’ve ever seen measured between any two species,” says lead author Andrew Pask at the University of Melbourne. Since scientists already have robust genomes for dogs and related species, sequencing the extinct animal’s genome would help them look for convergent similarities in their genes, helping them understand evolution at a molecular level.
“If two animals adapt to look almost identical, do you see that also reflected in their genome – can you actually find parts of their DNA that evolve to look very similar?” he says.
In 2008, Pask’s team was the first to take genetic material from an extinct species and make it function inside a living one, inserting thylacine DNA involved in bone and cartilage development into mouse embryos.
At that time, the DNA sequences they had were highly degraded, making sequencing an entire genome almost impossible. About 750 thylacine specimens are held in museums, and most are pelts or bones with little viable DNA. But, 13 young were removed from their mother’s pouches and preserved in ethanol, and one of the babies sampled had surprisingly well-preserved genetic material.
“This pouch young seems to be a magical specimen that happens to have really good intact DNA,” Pask says.
The U.K. Telegraph reported that Pask remains hopeful that the extinct species can be cloned and brought back to life again at some point in the not too distant future.
“As this genome is one of the most complete for an extinct species, it is technically the first step to ‘bringing the thylacine back’,” Pask said. “We are still a long way off that possibility.”
“We would need to develop a marsupial model to host the thylacine genome, like work conducted to include mammoth genes in the modern elephant,” he added.
Pask’s team also discovered that though there was little doubt that humans hunted the last of the thylacines into extinction, as they were believed to pose a threat to sheep herds, the species suffered from a lack of genetic diversity that probably would have resulted in it going extinct on its own without having been hunted by humans.
“I think we were responsible for hunting (the species) to extinction — in that case, we almost owe it to the species to bring it back,” Pask stated.
We live in incredible times and if this proves to be a success just imagine where it could lead. But how far do you go until you begin playing God? It’s a dangerous game but nonetheless an incredible possibility. It remains to be seen if this once-thought extinct species is brought back to life through cloning, but given the rapid advancement of technological discoveries these days, it certainly is not out of the realm of possibility.