Concept art of a thylacine. Image: Colossal
It’s been almost a century since the death of the last known thylacine, an animal more widely known as the Tasmanian tiger, which marked the extinction of this iconic predator. But a startup now hopes to bring thylacines back from the dead through a process called “de-extinction” and has enlisted a team of scientists, along with a celebrity family, to help the cause.Colossal Biosciences announced that it “has started the de-extinction of the thylacine, a beloved Australian marsupial that was eradicated by human hunting,” according to a statement released Tuesday. The company, which is also working on an effort to de-extinct wooly mammoths, said it was partnering with the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab at the University of Melbourne, led by the thylacine expert Andrew Pask, to achieve this goal, and shared support from investors, including entrepreneur Thomas Tull and actor-brothers Chris, Liam, and Luke Hemsworth.
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Though the effort will require advancements in assisted reproductive technology, among other fields, Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm believes that within ten years, thylacines—or at least, animals very genetically close to them—will be roaming the wilds of Australia and Tasmania, as they did for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.“We define success as when we can rewild them, and I think that’s a decade-long process,” said Lamm in a call. “I do think that we will have thylacines much sooner than that. We made a very public announcement that we believe that our mammoths will be here in four-to-six years, with 22 months of that being gestation.”Thylacines, meanwhile, have “a 14-day gestation,” he added. “So, I think it's safe to say this would be one of the first animals de-extincted.” The basic plan is not that far off from the premise of Jurassic Park: Splice together genetic material recovered from extinct thylacines, bolster it with living marsupial relatives, and nurture embryos into baby Tasmanian tigers in artificial wombs, or with a marsupial host. Because thylacines went extinct relatively recently, they left behind well-preserved DNA to serve as genetic scaffolds. But the sheer uniqueness of the Tasmanian tiger will present challenges to the Colossal team because it has few close relatives. As a result, an unspeakably cute marsupial known as the dunnart, which is about the size of a mouse and seems more likely to be prey for a thylacine, may end up being its genetic midwife and surrogate mother.
Though these animals would resemble their extinct forebears, and might deliver similar benefits to their ecosystems, they will bear genetically edited DNA that distinguishes them as a “proxy” species to the thylacine, rather than exact clones.“Our goal in anything is to get as genetically close as possible,” Lamm explained. “We want something that will have the right phenotypes, but also be in the environment and fill the ecological void that was previously lost. We've been very bullish on saying that we are not trying to create an identical species or create an exact clone because we don't have living cells.” “You can't really bring back a mammoth or bring back a thylacine,” he said. “But you can engineer one.” Lamm founded Colossal last year with George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, with the aim of creating what he calls an “end-to-end de-extinction toolkit.” The business plan is to pioneer deextinction technologies that produce profitable advances in fields like synthetic biology, stem cell reprogramming, multiplex editing, and gestation science. The Hemsworth brothers’ involvement might seem surprising at first, but there is some logic to it. Chris—who plays Thor in the MCU—lent a hand rewilding Australia with Tasmanian devils in 2020. “Our family remains dedicated to supporting conservationist efforts around the world and protecting Australia's biodiversity is a high priority,” he said in a statement. The Tassie Tiger’s extinction had a devastating effect on our ecosystem and we are thrilled to support the revolutionary conservation efforts that are being made by Dr. Pask and the entire Colossal team.”This line of research might not only bring animals back from the dead, it could potentially help living animals that have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Lamm noted that studies into surrogates and artificial wombs could help boost the population of some endangered species, such as the Tasmanian devil.“Those are the types of things that even Colossal is learning on its way through some of these de-extinction projects, where some piece of the technology could also be used to dramatically help conservation,” Lamm said.