The Tasmanian tiger could be reintroduced into the wild within a decade after a US biotech company backed by the Winklevoss twins pledged to recreate the animal nearly 90 years after it disappeared.
The last thylacine, the official name of the Tasmanian tiger that was the Australian island’s apex predator, died in a Hobart zoo in 1936. The wild population of the large carnivorous marsupial was wiped out by farmers and the local government, who put a bounty on the animal in the 19th century to protect the sheep.
Unconfirmed sightings of the striped dog-like creature roaming the Tasmanian wilderness have added to its mythical status and raised hopes that the animal has somehow survived.
“It’s like our Loch Ness Monster,” said Andrew Pask, a professor and evolutionary biologist at the University of Melbourne who leads the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research – or TIGRR – Lab, which recreated the genome thylacine.
Pask’s lab will collaborate with Colossal Biosciences, which grew 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 $75 million 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.”
Colossal hopes to convert the gene-editing processes it will use for thylacine and mammoth to commercial use in humans.
Pask said the gene-editing techniques and resources Colossal could bring to the thylacine project would speed up the animal’s reconstruction, which was first mooted as a possibility in the 1990s.
“It’s not a question of if but when it can happen,” he said, predicting that living animals could be created within a decade.
Ben Lamm, co-founder of Colossal, said a thylacine should be easier to recreate than a mammoth due to the higher quality of genetic samples available and the ease with which an embryo – initially the size of a grain of rice – could be gestated in the laboratory using surrogate animals and artificial pouches.
“It is quite possible that the thylacine could be born before the mammoth,” he said.
However, the editing process will be more complex because the thylacine family tree is more complicated than that of the mammoth. The canine appearance of the animal is misleading because it is a marsupial. Its closest relative is a small mouse-like creature called the fat-tailed dunnart, which may turn out to be the unlikely substitute for the Tasmanian tiger revival.
Pask said technical work to bring back the thylacine would also help guard against extinctions of other animals triggered by natural disasters, such as bushfires or climate change at a time when even the koala has been put on the list of endangered species.
“Biobanks exist, but we don’t have the technology to regenerate species. This project can provide that. We could recreate 100 koalas or quolls [a carnivorous marsupial] in the lab,” he said.
Euan Ritchie, professor of ecology at Deakin University in Melbourne, said recreating a thylacine would be a “massive scientific achievement”.
But he remained skeptical of the challenge of not only recreating an extinct animal, but also re-establishing a functioning population that could sustain itself. “If we can’t, then you have to wonder why we’re doing this. it becomes a bit like jurassic park“, Ritchie said.
He added that the focus should be on conserving animals in danger of extinction. “It’s much cheaper and more efficient to keep them alive than to resuscitate populations from the freezer,” he said.
The potential reintroduction of thylacines to Tasmania has not been universally welcomed, however. According to Pask, some sheep farmers have already expressed concern. But he added: “They don’t even eat sheep.
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Check out the FT’s coverage here.
Curious about the FT’s commitments to environmental sustainability? Read more about our scientific goals here