De-Extinction Scientists Are Planning To Bring a Long-Lost 'Tiger' Species Back to Life

De-extinction scientists are hoping to bring back a long lost "tiger" back to life, almost 100 years after the last of its kind died. Researchers are planning to use stem cells to create an embryo of the Tasmanian tiger that they can implant into a surrogate animal.

Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, were a type of marsupial that went extinct in mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago. They lived on in Tasmania until European settlers wiped them out in the wild through hunting. The last living Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in 1936.

Scientists with the University of Melbourne, Australia, have been working on a project to "de-extinct" the animals for years and new funding for a state-of-the-art laboratory has brought them to the brink of resurrecting this lost species.

A philanthropic donation of over $3.6m USD made to the university is expected to go towards the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab.

Tasmanian tigers, also known as Tasmanian wolves, were a predatory marsupial that shared some characteristics with modern-day dingoes or wild dogs in Australia. They were visually striking animals with distinctive stripes similar to zebras on their hindlegs.

Scientists working at the lab said the funding would be used in three main areas in their de-extinction efforts: Greater understanding of the Tasmanian tiger's genome, using the stem cells from other marsupials to make a thylacine embryo, and transferring it to a surrogate animal such as the mouse-like dunnart.

"The level of support we have for this project now I think it is conceivable that we could a thylacine-like cell within 10 years," Professor Andrew Pask, from the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne, told Newsweek.

"It's a big job and it needs some significant support to drive it. Fortunately we now have that. It is a bit like Jurassic park—we start with a living cell from a closely related species, in this case the dunnart—and we edit that cell to turn it genome into that of the thylacine. Once you have your 'thylacine' cell, you can use cloning technology to turn that cell into a living animal."

Pask said that the donation would provide 10 years of funding for the TIGRR lab. Pask and his team helped sequence the Tasmanian tiger genome in 2017. This mapped out the DNA blueprint of the animal and provided a crucial first step on the road to bringing it back to life.

Stock image of Thylacine in captivity
Stock image of Thylacine in captivity. The animals were hunted to near extinction by European settlers in Tasmania and the last one died in captivity in the 1930s. Topical Press Agency / Stringer/Getty Images

Pask said that Tasmanian tigers were a good candidate for de-extinction as they played a crucial role in balancing Tasmania's ecosystems and could do so again if they were reintroduced.

"The thylacine was our only apex predator and its loss from the ecosystem destabilizes everything that sits beneath it," Pask said. "A great example of this is Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease, which nearly wiped [that species] out. If you have these apex predators around like the thylacine—they pick off and eat the sick animals controlling the spread of diseases."

He said that the gene-editing technologies advanced at the lab could also help protect other key marsupial species in Australia threatened by ecosystem changes and recent wildfires because they help safeguard biodiversity from being lost in the region.

The donation came from the Wilson Family Trust.

Russel Wilson told the University of Melbourne about the decision to fund the research: "We came across Professor Pask's incredible work, believe it or not, via some YouTube clips on him talking about his research and passion for the thylacine and Australian marsupials. We realise that we are on the verge of a great breakthrough in science through improvements in technology and its application to the genome."

This article has been updated to include quotes from Andrew Pask.