There’s a new article on the Science section of news.com.au reporting on how new breakthroughs in genetic engineering and cloning might enable us to ‘reanimate’ bygone animal species such as the wooly mammoth and the famous Tasmanian tiger, which was officially exterminated in its entirety by sheep ranchers in the XIXth century, for fear that it preyed on their herds –of course, we here at The Grail still keep tabs with all the enthusiastic cryptozoologists who claim the elusive marsupial is still roaming the most remote regions of Tasmania…
Speculation about the revival of dinosaurs or other species has run rampant, ever since audiences around the world were captivated by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park; but now it really looks like in the case of mammals or other animals which became extinct fairly recently –at least, in geological terms– it’s no longer a matter of ‘If’ but rather ‘When’ thanks to that genie-in-the-bottle we’ve all heard so much about in the last couple of years: CRISPR-Cas9. If previous genetic techniques were akin to hit-or-miss ‘shotgun’ approaches, CRISPR is more like a true surgeon scalpel, because it lets scientists cut and paste precise pieces of the genome exactly where they want to –whether the edits render the results they expected, that is another story!
Since last December, a team of scientists from the University of Melbourne were able to sequence the entire genome of the Tasmanian tiger, thanks largely in part because of a highly well-preserved baby specimen. With the entire DNA ‘blueprint’ of the thylacine, it is now (theoretically) possible to utilize a cloning technique pioneered by Harvard geneticist George Church, whose own team is working to ‘de-extinct’ the wooly mammoth by way of using the DNA of its closest living relative –the Asian elephant– in order to fill in the gaps of the archaic genome; which means the end result would not actually be a true mammoth, but a hybridized modern elephant with the physiognomical appearance of a mammoth. The viable fertilized egg would also be inserted into the womb of a female Asian elephant, who would function as surrogate mother of the ‘mammoth-oid’.
So far so good for the mammoth resurrection. But what of thylacines, then? Which species is close enough to this marsupial that it can be used for the ‘gap filling’ and for the culmination of the cloned tiger’s birth? Here’s where the Australian scientists have a more difficult challenge than the mammoth team, because the closest living relative to the thylacine is the numbat, and if you compare the image below to a picture of every cryptozoologist’s favorite marsupial, it would be like trying to clone a T-Rex out of a chicken!
“You would have to make a lot more changes to make the numbat DNA look like a thylacine but the technology for making those changes has gotten exponentially easier in the last five or so years because of the people who are doing the mammoth work,” Prof Pask [one of the scientists who sequenced the thylacine genome] said.
It’s foreseeable as the technology improves, it would be able to be applied to bringing back the thylacine. Or, more accurately, a numbat/thylacine hybrid which takes on the appearance and attributes of a Tasmanian tiger.
So herein lies the irony: It would be actually 10 times more difficult to tweak the DNA of a numbat to make it look like a thylacine, than to do the same for a mammoth/elephant hybrid. And I say it’s ironic because I personally feel there’s no unethical caveats when it comes to bring back the thylacine, because it was humans who caused its extinction less than a century ago; whereas with the mammoth it’s a different can of CRISPR worms, because you’re talking about a species which adapted to an ecosystem that was FAR different from what our world is like today. And there’s also the fact that pachyderms are highly sociable and intelligent species, in which juveniles without proper contact to older elephants tend to grow rogue and unruly, so what would happen to one or two hybridized mammoths which might not be accepted by the rest of the herd they are put in?
Obviously, similar problems would be faced with the cloning of Tasmanian tigers, OR any other extinct species for that matter. It does really look as if all of those smart people were inspired by Jurassic Park’s awe-inspiring imagery, without bothering to REALLY pay attention to what Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm was trying to warn us of:
Should we bring back the Tasmanian tiger out of extinction, then? The mammoth? The brontosaur even? Get off your freaking Facebook wall and share your thoughts on the comments section –you know, like in the good ole days?