Tasmanian Tiger Breakthrough: Researchers In Sweden Recover RNA From 19th Century Museum Specimen

We have frequently reported on “de-extinction efforts.” Researchers world wide are trying to bring back extinct animals including dodo birds and wooly mammoths. One of the biggest challenges is the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine. Now a Tasmanian tiger breakthrough has made the news.

Taxidermy Mount - Thylacine, <em>Thylacinus cynocephalus</em> (Harris, 1808)
Taxidermy Mount – Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus (Harris, 1808) by Photographer: Rodney Start is licensed under CC-BY 4.0

According to Reuters Swedish researchers have recovered RNA from a specimen held in a Swedish museum since 1891. The recovery of RNA upends previous thinking about how fragile RNA is. It is also a possible breakthrough in de-extinction efforts in general and for the thylacine. Reuters said researchers thought RNA would not last long in a museum specimen. This specimen was very well preserved as it was dried. That may be the reason the RNA survived more than a century.

The last thylacines died in captivity in the 1930’s The recent Tasmanian tiger breakthrough may help them to roam again in an altered form

“Most researchers have thought that RNA would only survive for a very short time – like days or weeks – at room temperature. This is likely true when samples are wet or moist, but apparently not the case when they are dried,” said evolutionary geneticist Love DalĂ©n of the Centre for Palaeogenetics.” The centre is part of the Swedish Natural History Museum

Reuters continued:

“DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid) – biomolecular cousins – are fundamental molecules in cell biology.

DNA is a double-stranded molecule that contains an organism’s genetic code, carrying the genes that give rise to all living things. RNA is a single-stranded molecule that carries genetic information it receives from the DNA, putting this information into practice. RNA synthesizes the panoply of proteins that an organism requires to live and works to regulate cell metabolism.”

Tasmanian Tigers were marsupial predators common in Australia. The size of a large dog, they preyed on kangaroos and other animals. They came into conflict with humans. They were last seen alive in the 1930’s. Officially, the last survivor was Benjamin who died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. But there are reports of another female dying close to the same time.

This is a fat-tailed dunnart which must be involved in any efforts to recreate the Tasmanian Tiger.

Despite this Tasmanian tiger breakthrough recreating the thylacine is still a longshot as two issues have to be solved. First is finding samples with enough DNA for genetic sequencing. The RNA breakthrough may help with that. The second is finding a close enough relative to be a surrogate mother to the offspring. The closest living relative to the thylacine is the fat-tailed dunnart which is the size of a rat.

The current researchers are skeptical about de-extincting. They remain doubtful of both the ability to recreate and the time frame needed.

For more on thylacine de-extinction look here. For the super longshot chance they may not be extinct after all look here. One caution, de-extincted animals will not be the exact replica of the original. They will be a hybrid of the animals involved in the process.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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