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Life finds a way: Scientists are planning to resurrect extinct Tasmanian tiger

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Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Tasmanian tiger was a marsupial declared extinct in the 1930s. If one Dallas-based company has its way, that declaration will soon be reversed.

Colossal, a biotechnology “de-extinction” company, is working with scientists in Australia and the U.S. on a multimillion-dollar project to bring back the Tasmanian tiger — known formally as “thylacine” — and reintroduce it to its native land of Tasmania, reports the Guardian. Tasmania is an island state of Australia, located 150 miles south of the Australian mainland.

Scientific American explains that in the 1800s and early 1900s, European colonizers in Tasmania wrongly blamed the thylacine for killing their sheep and chickens. The settlers decimated the thylacine population, slaughtering the animal by the thousands. In 1936, the last known thylacine died of neglect in a zoo in Tasmania.

While it doesn’t yet have plans to open a Mesozoic-era themed park, Colossal isn’t limiting itself to bringing back just one extinct species. The company made headlines last year when it revealed that it hoped to revive the woolly mammoth.

According to the Guardian, scientists plan to bring back the Tasmanian tiger by taking stem cells from a living species with similar DNA, the fat-tailed dunnart, and turning them into “thylacine” cells – or the closest approximation possible. (The Tasmanian tiger is also closely related to a better-known member of Dasyuromorphia order, the Tasmanian devil.) The gene-editing technology that makes this process possible was developed by George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Colossal’s co-founder.

Colossal has formed a partnership with the University of Melbourne, which earlier this year, received a $5 million gift to open a thylacine genetic restoration lab.

“Our research proposes nine key steps to de-extinction of the thylacine. One of our biggest breakthroughs was sequencing the thylacine genome, providing a complete blueprint on how to essentially build a thylacine,” said Andrew Pask, a professor in the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne, who will be leading the newly created Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab.

The announcement is not without its critics. “‘Even if you can do it [in the lab] — and I have my doubts about that — how do you create the thousands of individuals of sufficient genetic variation you need to create a healthy population?” questioned Corey Bradshaw, a professor in global ecology at Flinders University.

Still, Colossal’s team is highly optimistic about its prospects. “I think it’s highly probable this could be the first animal we de-extinct,” said Ben Lamm, Colossal’s chief executive and other co-founder.

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