(page 4)

    Despite the initial media hype and public interest associated with the concept of producing a clone of the thylacine, one can readily see that the technological and biological barriers that would need to be overcome to produce a viable embryo are indeed immense. 

    In February 2005, the Australian Museum made the decision to discontinue its involvement with the thylacine cloning project.  In a media statement by the museum's current Director Frank Howarth and Assistant Director of Science & Collections Dr. Les Christidis it notes: "Although the museum possessed sufficient expertise to attempt to reconstruct a thylacine DNA library, it lacked the facilities and skill to conduct further stages requiring cell culture".  The cell culture stage of the project is necessary to enable cells from other species to act as hosts for the reconstructed thylacine genome.  Michael Archer, the project's team leader until 2003, when he left the museum to take up his new position as Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales, said that he: "was personally disappointed by the museum's decision not to proceed with the project" (Skatssoon 2005).  Archer continued:

    "I and other colleagues remain interested in the project and I don't think that it will simply die because the museum can't proceed.  The technology to make it happen is improving all the time and I believe science has a duty to continue to assemble the building blocks that will be needed to do it".

    Archer says that the technology for recovering degraded DNA and extracting it from museum specimens is advancing.

    As an adjunct to the cloning debate, a paper by authors Pask and Renfree from the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne, and Behringer from the University of Texas was published in the journal "PLoS ONE" (Pask et al. 2008).  The paper, entitled "Resurrection of DNA Function In Vivo from an Extinct Genome", described how a fragment of thylacine DNA had been brought back to life.
mouse foetus expressing the thylacine gene
A mouse foetus expressing the thylacine gene, shown by the blue staining.
Source: Andrew Pask and Richard Behringer.
In 1999, the researchers obtained tissue samples from three pouch pups and the skin of one adult thylacine preserved in ethanol at Museum Victoria in Melbourne.  DNA was subsequently extracted from the tissue samples.  The team then set about isolating small regions of the DNA that they painstakingly pieced together to provide the sequence of several genes.  One of these was the proa1(II) collagen (Col2a1) gene, which is involved in making bone.

    The team took the "enhancer" region of this gene and inserted it into the genomes of mouse embryos, using a genetic delivery method known as a plasmid.  They subsequently showed that the mice were producing the collagen using the thylacine gene fragment; the first time that DNA from an extinct species had been used to induce a functional response in another organism.

    Many wildlife conservationists argue that scarce funds used to recreate an extinct species would be better directed in attempting to preserve critically endangered species, and this certainly is a valid argument.  One could also argue that the advances made in the attempt to clone the thylacine could, through developments in reproductive medicine, directly benefit many of these very rare animals.

    Professor Archer confirmed in October 2005 that he was assembling a new team to revive the cloning project.  He states: "Public interest in the project is still strong and researchers from several Australian institutions have expressed interest in becoming involved.  In addition, US researchers with genetic sequencing capabilities will be involved for the first time and their expertise is expected to open up new possibilities for bringing the project closer to its ultimate goal".

    At the time of this writing, Professor Archer's work on cloning continues at the University of New South Wales.

   There remains of course a very important and intriguing question which hangs over all such hope and speculation: is the thylacine actually extinct?  The survival of a relic population of thylacines in the more remote parts of Tasmania cannot be easily dismissed, as there is sufficient secondary evidence to infer that the species does indeed still exist.  This in itself does not devalue the significance of thylacine cloning research, but it does have a bearing on people's perception of the species.  If the thylacine is presumed to be extinct, the resources to try to save it are diverted elsewhere.

    For an in-depth discussion on the history of thylacine sightings, see the museum's subsections Extinction vs. Survival and Alleged Mainland Thylacine Sightings.

back to: The Thylacine Cloning Project (page 3) return to the section's introduction

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