Joint project on thylacine de-extinction between the University of Melbourne and US-based biotech company gains $10-million boost

The announcement that a commercial company and philanthropists are partnering with Melbourne University to work on creating a new thylacine is drawing criticism from around the country.

US-based biotech company Colossal Biosciences is to invest $10 million in the University of Melbourne’s Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab. Aiming to “de-extinct” the thylacine, TIGRR lab was itself revealed, with $5 million in philanthropic funding, earlier this year.

TIGRR lab received much fanfare, as well as criticism from those unsure of the scientific rigour and the ethical considerations behind de-extinction.

The team says it will bring together 50 scientists to produce a “a de-extincted thylacine-ish thing” in 10 years. Dunnarts and numbats are thylacine’s closest living relatives (and former prey of the extinct carnivore). TIGRR hopes to use dunnart and numbat genetics to create a thylacine cell and fuse it with a dunnart egg to produce a thylacine embryo.

When this story was first posted we failed to correctly attribute quotes from Jeremy Austin – these were taken from a story written by Liam Mannix for The Age. The correct attribution is now in place.

Challenges to the principle of the project are coming from scientists concerned that the project will distract from the immediate need to educate the community about mass extinction events that are occurring now.

Professor Andrew Pask, leader of the TIGRR Lab, says the partnership is: “The most significant contribution to marsupial conservation research in Australia to date.”

“We can now take the giant leaps to conserve Australia’s threatened marsupials and take on the grand challenge of de-extincting animals we had lost,” Pask says.

“A lot of the challenges with our efforts can be overcome by an army of scientists working on the same problems simultaneously, conducting and collaborating on the many experiments to accelerate discoveries. With this partnership, we will now have the army we need to make this happen.”

Pask said TIGGR will concentrate efforts on establishing the reproductive technologies tailored to Australian marsupials, such as IVF and gestation without a surrogate, as Colossal simultaneously deploy their CRISPR gene editing and computational biology capabilities to reproduce thylacine DNA.

Colossal’s resources and expertise in CRISPR gene editing – the cutting and editing of DNA sequences to produce a genetic code to be developed into living organisms – will be paired with TIGGR’s work sequencing thylacine genome and identifying marsupials with similar DNA to provide living cells and template genome that can then be edited to recreate a thylacine genome.

“With this partnership, I now believe that in 10 years’ time we could have our first living baby thylacine since they were hunted to extinction close to a century ago,” says Pask.

Read more: Will Australia play host to Jurassic Park?

In a story by Liam Mannix published in The Age, Jeremy Austin, an associate professor from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, described de-extinction as “fairytale science”.

“It’s pretty clear to people like me that thylacine or mammoth de-extinction is more about media attention for the scientists and less about doing serious science.”

Mammal expert Kris Helgen of the Australian Museum, who worked on sequencing the thylacine’s mitochondrial genome in 2009, thinks altering the dunnart’s DNA to truly resemble a thylacine’s is not possible given the two species are separated by as much as 40 million years of evolution.

Helgen told Scientific American that the idea that science can bring back the thylacine “is just so lovely; it captures the imagination”, but isn’t possible. “But the thylacine is extinct in Australia and in Tasmania, and there’s no way to bring it back.”

Some species are simply gone forever because of how unique they were, and the thylacine is one of them, he says. “A few million dollars [are] not going to give us an escape hatch from extinction.”

There is concern that the hype around de-extinction will have negative impacts around current conservation efforts including diverting funding away from conserving threatened species.

Jack Ashby, author and director of Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology tweeted: “Science is very far off the de-extinction of the thylacine being possible, and it’s almost certainly impossible. In the meantime, the messages that extinction is forever are being undermined.

“Australia continues to face an extinction crisis. The thylacine project could make valuable scientific discoveries that could be used to help endangered marsupials through genetic technologies, but I doubt these would ever be preferable to traditional ecological measures.”

Similarly, Euan Ritchie, a professor of wildlife ecology at Melbourne’s Deakin University (and who is advising Cosmos on The Australian Mammal of the Year competition), said in a tweet: “Saving/recovering living species should be our number 1 priority. That means confronting societal, cultural, economic, legal & environmental causes of species decline & extinction.

“Conservation need not be seen as a zero-sum game, and portraying it as such feeds a deeply flawed narrative that we can’t afford to save species and ecosystems.”

Carol Freeman, an animal studies researcher at the University of Tasmania, raised her concerns with the Scientific American. “The whole discourse is about bringing this animal back, but the welfare of the individual animals isn’t really talked about,” she says.

Suffering of dunnarts and “thylacine-ish” creations in the course of the experiments “cannot be justified for such an uncertain result. It would be many years, if ever, that cloned thylacines could have anything like the life they may have had – and deserve – in the wild.”

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