Could Gene-Editing Technology Bring Back the Extinct Tasmanian Tiger?

With the stripes of a tiger, the body shape of a dog and the pouch of a kangaroo, the Australian thylacine was a unique combination of animals. Unfortunately, humans drove it to extinction, and the last one perished in 1936.

However, as gene technology advances and the science of "de-extinction" becomes more popular, the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, may one day walk again.

Andrew Pask, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, is planning to use advanced gene-editing technology to try to put thylacine genes on the genome of a living, related animal, according to Australian news site 7 News. If they succeed, and if they find or create a suitable surrogate mother, the resulting animal could have enough thylacine traits to look a lot like the extinct creature, and perhaps would act like it too.

A taxidermy mount of a Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), which was declared extinct in 1936, is displayed at the Australian Museum in Sydney in 2002. TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

This research is closely related to current attempts to resurrect a woolly mammoth. Using a fairly new and very promising gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9, Harvard geneticist George Church is trying to bring back the mammoth—or at least something close to it. By taking fragments of mammoth DNA from frozen Arctic carcasses and putting them on the genome of an Asian elephant, he hopes to create a cold-resistant, woolly mammoth–like elephant.

Unfortunately, past attempts to resurrect the thylacine have been disappointing. In 2000, Australian biologist Mike Archer launched a project to clone a Tasmanian tiger by getting the DNA from preserved museum specimens. However, using DNA from a dead animal to create a clone requires a complete genome, a living relative to be the surrogate mother and overcoming numerous other known and unknown obstacles. The attempt to clone a thylacine never succeeded in bringing back the animal, or anything close to it.

Still, de-extinction isn't a total loss. Archer later set his sights on the extinct gastric brooding frog. He took DNA from dead specimens and successfully created living embryos, although none of them were born. He called this triumph the Lazarus Project.

This project is one of many around the world that aim to bring back an extinct animal. If it succeeds, it would be like bringing Jurassic Park to life—but with safer, dog-like animals.