When a certain species of animal is declared as extinct, it is generally thought that they are gone from the world forever, but a recent discovery by scientists in Australia could bring a species presumed extinct for decades back to life.
National Geographic reported in December 2017 that researchers believed they had successfully sequenced the entire genome of a canine-like marsupial known as the Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine, that had been declared as hunted to extinction in 1982.
The carnivorous mammal is believed to have disappeared from the Australian mainland some 3,000 years ago, but was known to have still existed in isolation on the island of Tasmania until early in the 20th century, with the last such animal in captivity dying at the Hobart Zoo in 1936.
Amazingly, using near-perfect DNA obtained from a thylacine pup preserved in ethanol 108 years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Melbourne led by Andrew Pask have now sequenced that genetic material and believe they potentially could bring the extinct species back to life through cloning.
Doing so is no easy task though, as Pask admitted that “making a whole functional genome, as opposed to having a sequenced genome, are two very different things, so that’s a big hurdle to get across.”
“It would be at least a decade before we have the technologies to really start to pursue de-extinction,” Pask estimated. “But you never know how fast some of these technologies will develop.”
Indeed, a paleontologist and de-extinction expert at Sydney’s University of New South Wales named Mike Archer, who pioneered the exploration of thylacine cloning in the 2000s, was astounded at the progress made by Pask’s team.
“There’s a lot of work down the road to do this, but what I think Pask’s group has demonstrated is that what we would have thought 20 years ago was a ridiculous impossibility is increasingly possible,” Archer stated.
Nevertheless, 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.
According to the U.K. Daily Mail, the study of thylacine DNA also revealed that it was a truly unique animal, unlike any other known species both alive or dead.
As far as physical appearance, the Tasmanian Tiger most closely resembled a fox or wolf, but genetically was most closely related to wallabies.
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.
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