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Extinct gene resurrected

May 19, 2008
Courtesy Public Library of Science
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists say they have ex­tracted a gene from an ex­tinct or­gan­ism, the Tas­ma­ni­an ti­ger, and made it work in a mouse.

It’s the first time DNA from an ex­tinct spe­cies “has been used to in­duce a func­tion­al re­sponse in an­oth­er liv­ing or­gan­ism,” said An­drew Pask, a zo­olo­g­ist at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Mel­bourne, Aus­tral­ia, who led the re­search.

Tht Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in an 1869 painting by Harriet Scott (State Library of Tasmania)


The Tas­ma­ni­an ti­ger, not ac­tu­ally a ti­ger, was a wolf-like mar­su­pi­al pred­a­tor hunt­ed to ex­tinction in Aus­tral­ia early in the last cen­tu­ry. The last one known died in Aus­tral­ia’s Ho­bart Zoo in 1936.

The re­search could help fos­ter “a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the bi­ol­o­gy of ex­tinct an­i­mals,” said Rich­ard Beh­rin­ger of the M.D. An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Tex­as, who col­la­bo­rat­ed in the stu­dy.

The work could al­so aid in the de­vel­op­ment of new biomedicines, he added. Many drugs come from liv­ing or­gan­isms, but their ex­tinction in grow­ing num­bers to­day bodes ill for fu­ture drug dis­cov­ery. Be­ing able to res­ur­rect ex­tinct an­i­mals’ genes might off­set the loss some­what.

At a time when ex­tinctions “are in­creas­ing at an alarm­ing rate, es­pe­cially of mam­mals,” the re­search is “crit­i­cal,” said Uni­ver­s­ity of Mel­bourne zo­olo­g­ist Mar­i­lyn Ren­free. “Our meth­od shows that ac­cess to [ex­tinct an­i­mals’] ge­net­ic bio­divers­ity may not be com­pletely lost.” Ren­free is sen­ior au­thor of a pa­per on the find­ings, pub­lished in the sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal PLoS One this week. 

The re­search­ers found that a tas­ma­ni­an ti­ger gene known as Col2a1 has a si­m­i­lar func­tion in mice as does a re­lat­ed mouse gene by the same name: both are in­volved in car­ti­lage and bone de­vel­op­ment.

The scientists used cen­tu­ry-old Tas­ma­ni­an ti­ger spec­i­mens pre­served in al­co­hol at Mel­bourne’s Mu­se­um Vic­to­ria, from which they iso­lat­ed DNA. They then in­sert­ed this in­to mouse em­bryos. The old DNA was res­ur­rected, show­ing a func­tion in the de­vel­op­ing mouse car­ti­lage, which would lat­er form bone, they said.


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Scientists say they have extracted a gene from an extinct organism, the Tasmanian tiger, and made it work in a mouse. It’s the first time DNA from an extinct species “has been used to induce a functional response in another living organism,” said Andrew Pask, a zoologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who led the research. The Tasmanian tiger was not actually a tiger, but a wolf-like marsupial predator, hunted to extinction in Australia early in the last century. The last one known died in Australia’s Hobart Zoo in 1936. Several tissues from the animals were preserved in alcohol in museums. The research could help foster “a better understanding of the biology of extinct animals,” said Richard Behringer of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, who collaborated in the study. The work could also aid in the development of new biomedicines, he added. Many drugs come from living organisms, but their extinction in growing numbers today bodes ill for future drug discovery. Being able to resurrect extinct animals’ genes might offset the loss somewhat. “At a time when extinction rates are increasing at an alarming rate, especially of mammals,” the research “is critical,” said University of Melbourne zoologist Marilyn Renfree. “Our method shows that access to [extinct animals’] genetic biodiversity may not be completely lost.” Renfree is senior author of a paper on the findings, published in the scientific journal PLoS One this week. The researchers found that a tasmanian tiger gene known as Col2a1 has a similar function in mice as does a related mouse gene by the same name. Both are involved in cartilage and bone development, the researchers found. The research team used century-old tasmanian tiger specimens from Melbourne’s Museum Victoria, from which they isolated DNA. They then inserted this into mouse embryos. The tasmanian tiger DNA was resurrected, showing a function in the developing mouse cartilage, which would later form bone, they said.