Words by Angelica Haskins
Art by Des Ramjee
The Tasmanian tiger has long been an emblem of extinction at the hands of human beings. As a large carnivorous marsupial species, the thylacine was predator to many land-dwelling birds, however, it fell prey to the extreme overhunting and destruction of habitat instigated by perhaps the ultimate apex predator: humans. While a gradual shift in public opinion eventually proffered the species protection status, such conservation measures came too late, with the final Tasmanian tiger dying not two months later, yet, the species was not officially declared extinct until nearly 50 years later in 1982.
However, some scientists believe that we may be able to ‘de-extinct’ the thylacine. Texan genetic engineering firm Colossal Biosciences have partnered with scientists at the Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab at the University of Melbourne in a groundbreaking and ambitious mission to bring the Tasmanian tiger back to life.
Thus far, the team have been able to sequence the genome of a preserved thylacine and determined the most genetically related marsupial species to serve as a kind of template. In engaging the use of Colossal’s renowned CRISPR gene editing technology, the team hope to take stem cells from the fat-tailed dunnart, an Australian mouse-like marsupial, and splice its genome with that of recovered thylacine genes to subsequently grow viable Tasmanian tiger embryos, which would be implanted into a surrogate species.
While Colossal is no stranger to attention—their past ambitions have been to create ‘mammophants,’ a kind of woolly mammoth-elephant hybrid that captured the curiosity of an international audience, yet has not bloomed intro fruition—their plan to effectively resuscitate a long dead species has incited ire and incertitude amongst the scientific community.
Researchers associated with the project believe that the de-extinction of the thylacine will serve as a catalyst to rejuvenate the field of animal conservation; resurrection of the long extinct marsupial would be a scientific success story that would allow us to create, in effect, a safety net lest other vulnerable or threatened species fall prey to extinction. Moreover, it would allow us to restore ecological niches that have been lost from the biosphere, thus ultimately allowing a kind of factory reset to the natural world. Colossal CEO and cofounder, Ben Lamm, asserted that the success of this project would contribute immense scientific resources to preserving concurrent ecosystems in the form of increased understanding and utilisation of “gestational and genetic rescue technologies.”
Furthermore, a former apex predator of the Tasmanian biosphere, resuscitating this species would fill a biological niche, potentially restoring balance to an ecosystem that has long been offset by its extinction. Moreover, returning this animal to its rightful place in the food chain would also be a way of making amends with the natural world. The thylacine was hunted to mass extinction by human beings; perhaps resuscitation by the hands of humans is an ethical and moral obligation that would also serve as a means of repent.
Yet, this creates conflict in regards to an ethical and moral frontier. If large corporations and wealthy entities are able to pick and choose which creatures to bring back, perhaps many species deemed not ‘cool’ enough may suffer. This lends credence to the idea that perhaps such animal or plant species already on the verge of extinction may die out due to neglect, as efforts are drawn towards resuscitation of species regarded as more interesting. This introduces a Jurassic Park fallacy in which large conglomerate entities may compete with one another to splice species to propel such animals as an avenue of entertainment rather than a means of conservation.
As such, perhaps the funds allotted to this project could be better spent on preserving concurrently threatened wildlife. Perhaps, instead of focussing on bringing back species that humans have led to extinction, we could be directing our efforts on conservation processes to ensure that we don’t have to worry about further de-extinction projects in future. In Australia alone, 86 animal species are considered critically endangered. In dedicating increased efforts to ameliorating this threat of extinction, we could ensure that we do not restore the sanctity of our natural biosphere, and not only preserve our concurrent ecosystems, but allow them to flourish.
However, this may all be moot conjecture; many scientists are questioning the validity behind the aims of the project and are doubtful that reviving an animal from extinction is even possible. Biosciences professor, Andrew Pask found that there was a lack of genetic diversity amongst thylacines, and that if they were to be brought back, these creatures would subsequently be susceptible to myriad diseases and potentially once again fall victim to extinction.
While it is unclear yet if the Tasmanian tiger will be brought back to life by such radical genome technologies, one thing is clear: this carnivorous beast will continue to live on as a paragon of Australian folklore for many decades to come.