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Scientists vow to bring Tasmanian tiger back from extinction

The Tasmanian tiger could be reintroduced into the wild within a decade after a US biotechnology company backed by the Winklevoss twins pledged to recreate the animal almost 90 years after it was declared extinct.

The last thylacine, the official name of the Tasmanian tiger that was the Australian island’s apex predator, died in a zoo in Hobart in 1936. The wild population of the large carnivorous marsupial was wiped out by farmers and the local government, which put a bounty on the animal during the 19th century to protect sheep.

Unconfirmed sightings of the striped, doglike creature wandering the Tasmanian wilderness have added to its mythical status and spawned hopes that the animal had somehow survived.

“It’s like our Loch Ness monster,” said Andrew Pask, a professor and evolutionary biologist at the University of Melbourne, who runs the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research — or TIGRR — Lab, which has recreated the thylacine genome.

Pask’s lab will collaborate with Colossal Biosciences, which was spun out of the work of George Church, a Harvard professor who was one of the creators of the Human Genome Project. The company is already working to recreate a woolly mammoth as part of its “de-extinction” plan.

The Dallas-based company has raised $75mn and has been backed by investors including Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Chris Hemsworth, the actor who plays Marvel’s “Thor”.

The Colossal Biosciences team line up in front of a mammoth
The Colossal Biosciences team hopes to convert the gene-editing processes it will use for the thylacine and mammoth for commercial use in humans © John Davidson

Colossal hopes to convert the gene-editing processes it will use for the thylacine and mammoth for commercial use in humans.

Pask said the gene-editing techniques and resources that Colossal could bring to the thylacine project would accelerate the rebuilding of the animal, which was first mooted as a possibility in the 1990s.

“It is not a matter of if but when it can happen,” he said, predicting that live animals could be created within the decade.

Ben Lamm, co-founder of Colossal, said a thylacine should be easier to recreate than a mammoth because of the higher quality of the genetic samples available and the ease with which an embryo — initially the size of a grain of rice — could be gestated in the lab using surrogate animals and artificial pouches.

“It is highly possible the thylacine could be birthed before the mammoth,” he said.

However, the editing process will be more complex as the thylacine’s family tree is more complicated than the mammoth’s. The animal’s canine appearance is misleading as it is a marsupial. Its closest relation is a small mouse-like creature called a fat-tailed dunnart, which could prove to be the unlikely surrogate for the rebirth of the Tasmanian tiger.

Pask said the technical work to bring back the thylacine would also help guard against the extinctions of other animals triggered by natural disasters, such as bushfires, or climate change in an age when even the koala has been put on the endangered list.

“Biobanking is happening, but we don’t have the technology to regenerate species. This project can deliver that. We could recreate 100 koalas or quolls [a carnivorous marsupial] in the lab,” he said.

Euan Ritchie, a professor of ecology at Deakin University in Melbourne, said that recreating a thylacine would be a “massive scientific achievement”.

But he remained sceptical about the challenge of not only recreating an extinct animal but re-establishing a functioning population that could sustain itself. “If we can’t, then you have to ask why are we doing this. It becomes a bit like Jurassic Park,” Ritchie said.

He added that the emphasis needed to be on conserving animals in danger of extinction. “It is far cheaper and more effective to keep them alive than resurrecting populations from the freezer,” he said.

The potential reintroduction of thylacines to Tasmania has, however, not been universally welcomed. According to Pask, some sheep farmers have already expressed concern. But he added: “They don’t even eat sheep.”

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