The Tasmanian tiger, which lived on the Australian island of Tasmania, got its name from the stripes on its back. Moreover, the animal was not so much like a tiger, like a dog or a wolf.
Also important: the animal was a carnivore and this also proved fatal to it. Fearing that the Tasmanian tiger would eat all the sheep on the island, it was hunted and killed by humans.
Now people want to bring the animal back to life. Scientists from the University of Melbourne and the US biotechnology company Colossal, which is also working to bring mammoths back to life, want to use a new DNA technology for this.
This brings us into new territory, says scientist Stephen van der Meije of Naturalis, a research institute in the field of biodiversity.
“So far, attempts have been made several times to bring an extinct animal back to life. Also with the Tasmanian tiger. Then they used the DNA of the deceased Tasmanian tiger and tried to clone the animal. But the old DNA often gets damaged, so this doesn’t work very well.”
In this effort, they will not be looking for the DNA of a deceased Tasmanian tiger. Van der Mije: “The idea now is that they’re going to take DNA from a species very similar to the Tasmanian tiger. In that case, maybe it’s quiescent.”
Thanks to new technologies, they can then process the DNA of the kool, van der Meege explains. “At Quoll, DNA is very much compatible with that of the Tasmanian tiger. The mismatched pieces of cell DNA can now be removed using new techniques. The tiger is reconstituted, without relying on old materials.”
‘Opportunities are growing’
New technology but will it pay off? Scholars are divided on this. In Australia itself, some experts are laughing at the project. For example, Australian DNA expert Jeremy Austin calls the revival of extinct animals “fairytale science”.
Others, like van der Mije, believe the chance of success is increased thanks to this new technology. “It could be possible to create a perfect DNA cell, but then the challenge remains to turn that DNA cell into a complete animal.”
Will the mammoth return?
The Tasmanian tiger is not the only extinct animal that scientists are interested in. Colossal, the American company involved in the Tasmanian tiger, has also embarked on a project to bring the mammoth back to life. New gene technology is used here as well. It uses the genes of elephants.
Van der Mije: “Usually you allow a cell to combine with another cell through sexual intercourse. Then an embryo is created and you let it grow. Now that’s not possible and they have to try to make an embryo by artificially dividing the cell several times – this is the technique that has been successfully used in sheep before.”
“They let this embryo grow artificially or implant it in another animal. With the latter there is a risk of rejection of the embryo.” It is not clear which animal should bear the fetus.
Why do we even do this?
From a genetics point of view, this is a very interesting development, so it remains to be seen whether the new techniques will also yield results. But suppose it works, suppose that extinct animals can be brought back to life. Going long distances?
Ethicist Bernice Povenkirk, assistant professor at Wageningen University, is important for several reasons.
“Just because it’s cool”
Bovenkirk: “If you want to bring extinct animals back to life there must be a good reason for that, but what is that reason? Study scientists say that bringing the Tasmanian tiger has a positive impact on biodiversity, but this is not entirely clear, the question is what If they were to survive this time.”
Van der Mije also has doubts about his chances of survival, but for a different reason. “The animals were exterminated by people at that time because of their sheep. Those sheep are still around, why do they accept those animals in Tasmania now?”
Bovenkirk also refers to investigation costs. “Existing animals are being risked at the expense of non-existent ones. Using genes or perhaps carrying a fetus can cause suffering to animals. Plus – many animals are on the verge of extinction – shouldn’t the money from this research go there?”
Povenkirk: “As an ethicist, I see this research as a technological masterpiece rather than an added value for biodiversity. Scientists can prove they can bring an animal back to life with their new technology, but do you want research like this just because you think it’s cool?” “