The Tasmanian wolf (or tiger) could be reintroduced into the wild within a decade, nearly 90 years after its extinction. A US biotechnology company, backed by the Winklevoss twins, has promised to recreate the animal.
The last thylacine, the official name for the Tasmanian wolf that was the Australian island’s main predator, died in a zoo in Hobart in 1936. The wild population of the large carnivorous marsupial was wiped out by ranchers and the local government, which put a bounty on it. by the animal during the 19th century to protect sheep.
Unconfirmed sightings of the striped, dog-like creature roaming the Tasmanian wilderness added to their myth and raised 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 directs the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Laboratory (TIGRR), which has recreated the animal’s genome. .
Pask’s lab will collaborate with Colossal Biosciences, the result 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 raised $75 million and was backed by investors including Silicon Valley venture capitalists, brothers 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 on the thylacine and mammoth for commercial use in humans.
Pask said the gene-editing techniques and capabilities that Colossal could bring to the thylacine project would speed up the animal’s reconstruction, which was first discussed as a possibility in the 1990s.
“It’s not a question of if, but when it might happen,” he said, predicting that live 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 – can be gestated. in the laboratory using surrogate animals and artificial bags.
“It is highly possible that the thylacine is born before the mammoth,” he said.
However, the editing process will be more complex as the thylacine family tree is more complicated than that of the mammoth. The animal’s canine appearance is deceptive as it is a marsupial. Their closest relationship is a tiny mouse-like creature called the fat-tailed dunnart, which could be the unlikely replacement for the rebirth of the Tasmanian wolf.
Pask said the technical work to bring back the thylacine would also help prevent the extinction of other animals from natural disasters such as wildfires or climate change, at a time when even the koala was placed 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 a hundred koalas or quolls. [um marsupial carnívoro] in the laboratory,” he said.
Euan Ritchie, professor of ecology at Deakin University in Melbourne, said recreating a thylacine would be a “major scientific achievement”.
But he remained pessimistic about the challenge of not just recreating an extinct animal, but restoring a functioning population capable of sustaining itself. “If we can’t, then you have to ask why we’re doing this. It becomes a bit like ‘Jurassic Park,” Ritchie said.
He added that the emphasis needs to be on conserving endangered animals. “It’s much cheaper and more effective to keep them alive than to resurrect populations from the freezer,” he said.
The potential reintroduction of thylacines to Tasmania, however, was not universally welcomed. According to Pask, some sheep farmers have already expressed concern. But he added, “They don’t even eat sheep.”