In a remarkable scientific breakthrough, researchers have achieved a groundbreaking feat by recovering RNA, the genetic material present in all living cells, from the desiccated remains of a Tasmanian tiger, also known as thylacine. This development, detailed in a study published in the journal Genome Research, marks the first time RNA has been extracted from an extinct species, shedding new light on the biology and genetics of this fascinating creature. While the primary focus of this research is not resurrection, the ability to retrieve RNA from ancient specimens has profound implications for understanding extinct species and even deciphering the causes of past pandemics.
The Enigmatic Tasmanian Tiger
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, once roamed the Australian continent and nearby islands as an apex predator, hunting kangaroos and other prey. With its distinctive tiger-like stripes, this dog-sized marsupial bore a striking resemblance to a wolf. However, human activity led to its tragic extinction.
The arrival of humans in Australia approximately 50,000 years ago initiated significant population declines for the Tasmanian tiger. European colonizers arriving in the 18th century sealed the fate of the remaining populations concentrated on the island of Tasmania. These animals were declared a threat to livestock, and a bounty was placed on their heads.
A Tale of Extinction
The story of the thylacine’s decline is one of the most well-documented and undeniable instances of human-driven extinction. It is a stark reminder of the profound impact humans can have on the natural world. Despite being declared a protected species just two months before the last known individual’s death, it was too late to save them from extinction.
Recovering RNA from the Past
DNA and RNA, the biomolecular cousins that underpin the foundation of genetics and cellular biology, play crucial roles in understanding the genetics and biology of extinct species. DNA, a double-stranded molecule, carries an organism’s genetic code, while RNA, a single-stranded molecule, translates this information into functional proteins and regulates cell metabolism.
While scientists have previously extracted DNA from ancient specimens, the study led by geneticist Emilio Mármol Sánchez and study co-author Marc Friedländer has achieved a groundbreaking milestone by successfully recovering RNA from the skin and muscle of a Tasmanian tiger specimen stored since 1891 in a museum in Stockholm. This achievement provides a glimpse into these extinct creatures’ biology and metabolism regulation.
Challenges and Surprises
One of the most intriguing aspects of this breakthrough is the survival of RNA under conditions once believed to be inhospitable. Researchers initially questioned whether RNA could endure for extended periods at room temperature, similar to the conditions in which these specimens had been stored. Surprisingly, the Tasmanian tiger remains, which were semi-mummified, preserved the RNA, even though internal organs were lost.
Implications and Future Possibilities
The ability to recover RNA from ancient specimens not only enhances our understanding of extinct species but also holds potential for various scientific endeavors. Researchers believe this achievement could aid in “de-extinction” initiatives, which aim to resurrect certain extinct species like the Tasmanian tiger, dodo, or woolly mammoth.
Although the prospect of recreating extinct species using gene editing remains a subject of skepticism and ethical considerations, this discovery underscores the importance of further research into the biology of extinct animals. Understanding these creatures’ genetic makeup and active genes can provide invaluable insights into their ecosystems, behaviors, and adaptations, ultimately contributing to our broader understanding of Earth’s rich biodiversity.
The recovery of RNA from the desiccated remains of a Tasmanian tiger is a remarkable scientific achievement that opens new doors in our quest to understand and potentially revive extinct species. It serves as a testament to the resilience of genetic material and highlights the urgency of preserving our planet’s biodiversity. While the revival of extinct creatures remains a complex and debated topic, the knowledge gained from this breakthrough promises to advance our understanding of the natural world and the intricate web of life that once included the enigmatic Tasmanian tiger.