Andrew Pask, a professor at the University of Melbourne and the head of the Institution’s Thylacine Integration Genetic Restoration Research Lab, is leading the team of scientists to restore the animal back to life.
“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,” Pask Andrew said.
Benjamin, the last known thylacine, died in 1936 at a Zoo in Hobard, Tasmania. Most of the remaining thylacine left in Australia in the 1800s were deliberately killed by European settlers who believed that the creature hunted their livestock. In the early 1900s, the thylacine was granted protection status, but unfortunately, it was too late to save the shy animal.
“Our ultimate goal with this technology is to restore these species to the wild, where they played absolutely essential roles in the ecosystem. So our ultimate hope is that you would be seeing them in the Tasmanian bushland again one day,” Pask explains.
The Resurrection Process
The team of scientists will start the resurrection process by constructing a detailed genome of the animal and then compare it to the fat-tailed dunnart, the closest living relative of the thylacine. The team will then study the differences.
“We then take living cells from our dunnart and edit their DNA every place where it differs from the thylacine. We are essentially engineering our dunnart cell to become a Tasmanian tiger cell,” Professor Pask explained.
The fat-tailed dunnart is a smaller version of an adult thylacine. However, professor Pask said that all marsupials give birth to young, as tiny as a grain of rice. Although smaller, the dunnart could serve as a surrogate mother for the larger thylacine.
If the animal is successfully resurrected, the next question would be how to rewild it. Pask explains that the rewilding process would be gradual.
He said: “Any release such as this requires studying the animal and its interaction in the ecosystem over many seasons and in large areas of enclosed land before you would consider a complete rewilding.”
He however admitted that the team still lacks some technologies to complete the task, including preventing the recreated animal from bushfires.
“We still lack the technology to take that tissue, create marsupial stem cells, and then turn those cells into a living animal. That is the technology we will develop as a part of this project,” Pask added.
An Imperfect Resurrection
No doubt, the recreation of an animal that has gone into extinction is a very challenging task. The cost of that project explains that. Recreating the thylacine will cost at least $15 million. Despite the high cost, experts have said it is almost impossible to revive the exact animal that has gone extinct.
“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,” Gilbert, a professor at the University of Copenhagen’s GLOBE Institute, said, as reported by CNN.
“They will have to cherry-pick what changes to make. And thus, the result will be a hybrid,” Gilbert added.
He said the survival of the hybrid might not be so easy because of health challenges it might develop in the process of recreation, adding that it might not be able to survive without the assistance of humans. That has raised the question of the necessity of spending millions of dollars on resurrecting an animal that might not survive for long.
“To me, the real benefit of any de-extinction project such as this is the awesomeness of it. Doing it seems very justified to me simply because it will excite people about science, nature, conservation,” Gilbert added.