In Australia, scientists want to bring the Tasmanian tiger back to life

Nearly 70 years after the death of the last specimen, will the Tasmanian tiger rise from the ashes? This is what Australian scientists are hoping for, having just announced a major breakthrough in their project. The University of Melbourne actually received a grant of $5 million (about 4.6 million euros) to create a new laboratory.

Named the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Rehabilitation Research (TIGRR) Laboratory, the structure will aim to develop technologies to attempt to revive the now-extinct species of thylacine and to develop new tools to conservation of endangered species, especially the endemic mammals of ‘Australia.

“Thanks to this generous donation, we are at a decisive turning point” Professor Andrew Pask of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Melbourne explains in our efforts. In Australia, at least 39 mammal species have become extinct in the last 200 years. But it’s geared towards the famous Tasmanian tiger (Hydrocephalus (Thylacinus cynocephalus) that the researchers chose to turn to.

One last specimen died in 1936

This animal, named for the stripes on its back, is a marsupial mammal that was once common in Australia and New Guinea. Before it declined and disappeared about 2,000 years ago, it was probably due to competition from another predator introduced by humans, according to the most popular theory.

However, the animal survived in Tasmania, an island located southeast of mainland Australia. According to the National Museum of Australia, the population is estimated at 5,000 individuals before European colonization in the early 19th century. But she did not grow long. Once cattle were introduced into the area, marsupials were quickly considered pests by ranchers.

In the 1830s, bonuses were awarded to encourage the destruction of thylacines accused of predating livestock and poultry. An initiative that lasted until the early 20th century. Estimates forwarded by the Australian Museum show that between 1830 and the 1920s, around 3,500 specimens were shot.

This hunting, together with the introduction of competing species, diseases and the destruction of their habitats, has rapidly led to a rapid decline in the number of these animals. Observations in the natural environment then became extremely rare. The last wild specimen shot is believed to have been killed in 1930 by a farmer in northeastern Tasmania.

The last known specimen was captured in 1933 and sent to the Hobart Zoo. Named Benjamin although his gender is unknown, he died three years later, in September 1936. In June 2020, the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia (NFSA) ) revealed never-before-seen images of the animal taken months before its death.

Status of the species T. cynocephalus began to cause concern in the 1900s, but conservation measures came too late. It did not officially receive protected status until 1936, shortly before Benjamin’s death. Since then and despite intensive research, none of these observations of wild-type thylacine could be confirmed.

While some in Australia believe the species is still alive, there is no convincing evidence of its existence. And it has been officially considered extinct since 1982 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But scientists now think they can make it work again.

The thylacine genome sequenced

Of all the species proposed against extinction, thylacine is arguably the most interesting. Tasmania’s habitat has remained largely unchanged, providing the perfect environment for reintroduction of thylacine, and its regeneration will most likely benefit the entire ecosystem.“, Pr. Park estimates.

This expert and his colleagues took an important step in 2017 by sequencing the genome of thylacine from a young specimen kept in the collection of Museums Victoria. “This young player turned out to be a magic specimen containing DNA in very good condition“, has been specified at the time Pr. passes to National Geography.

Of course, a DNA in very good condition, but in small pieces. A puzzle that the team tried to piece together by comparing the genomes with those of other closely related species such as tett (Myrmecobius fasatus)another Australian marsupial that shares a common ancestor with the Tasmanian tiger dating from 35,000 to 41,000 years ago.

The goal is to geta complete diagram of how to build a thylacine“The museum holds about 750 specimens, has expert support.”Our study proposes 9 important steps to eradicating extinction. ” of animals, he added. “This donation will allow our lab to move forward and focus on three main themes“.

Among them: “advance our understanding of the thylacine genome; develop techniques to use marsupial stem cells to fertilize embryos; and eventually successfully transfer embryos into a host uterus, such as that of a marsupial called a dunnart or a Tasmanian devil“, he continued.

A complicated and controversial process

De-extinction is a particularly complex process using various technologies, some of which are still in their infancy. It could take at least a decade before scientists have the tools they need. But thylacine is not the only species of interest to such a project.

In the United States, it’s the woolly mammoth that one company plans to revive within six years of extinction. However, the latter is inevitably controversial, with some arguing specifically that it would be wiser to focus efforts on species that are endangered and still alive.

For Pr. Park, one does not exclude the other. Advances made by the laboratory in the future may even be useful for conservation. “The tools and methods to be developed will have immediate benefits for marsupial conservation and provide the means to protect diversity and combat the loss of endangered species .“, he confirmed.

While our ultimate goal is to bring thylacine back to life, we will immediately apply our advances to conservation science. […] to help breeding programs prevent other marsupials from experiencing the same fate as the Tasmanian tiger“, he was adamant.

In Australia, mammal species have suffered a severe decline in numbers over the past two centuries, pushing some species to the brink of extinction. This is the case of a small rodent called Melomys rubicola and has not been observed since 2009, the species has been officially declared extinct by the IUCN since 2019. At least nine other species are now classified as critically endangered.

Read more:

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