Cloning the thylacine

There is a links section below.

Project begins!
Many people have heard about the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) cloning project, yet it seems there is very little current information on the web about it. The dream of cloning a thylacine only became a possibility by fortuitous coincidence - a farmer who found a dead female thylacine pup in 1866 chose to preserve it using alcohol instead of the common formalin solution.

Says visionary Professor Mike Archer, "When the Tasmanian tiger was officially declared extinct in 1986, I knew in my heart that the museum specimen held the link to its revival. The discovery that there was a 'pickled pup' in the collections of the Australian Museum started me thinking about the unthinkable – the potential of using its DNA to bring it back, before there were Dollys, cloned human insulin and other things to suggest it was just a mad dream. It was not until Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1997 that technology caught up with this vision".

In May 1999, Archer - then Director of the Australian Museum - launched the project.

As with most things thylacine, the online Thylacine Museum, assembled by Cameron Campbell, is an excellent place for information. As well as documenting some of the obstacles facing the scientific team, Campbell's five page article on the subject takes an interesting diversion in to Professor Henry Nix's work at Australian National University.

Professor Nix used environmental modelling software which he developed, called BIOCLIM, together with trapping and shooting records from the late 1800s, to produce a model of ideal thylacine habitat. Next, he correlated all Tasmanian post-extinction thylacine sighting locations against the model and found that the most reliable sightings were also the most closely correlated to ideal habitat. Finally, he extended this work to predict suitable thylacine habitat on the mainland in Victoria and again found a correlation with thylacine sightings in that state.

Project folds
Returning to the question of cloning, the project eventually folded in early 2005, one year after Professor Archer left the position of Director. The Australian Museum still maintains a webpage which describes the project goals and documents the progress made. From that site,

"The immediate goals at the commencement of the project were to:

1) Extract DNA of the highest possible quality from thylacine specimens.

2) Make and distribute "libraries" in bacteria or yeast, with complete coverage of the thylacine genome so that its genetic material can be maintained indefinitely.
"

The second goal, although having some success, concludes with the following disheartening insight into the difficulty of launching stage three:

"The lack of success with attempts to clone longer fragments hugely magnifies the difficulty of making a genetic map of the thylacine for the genomic sequencing planned as the third immediate goal of the project."

Project rises from the ashes
Only a few months later, in May 2005, Professor Archer announced the likely resumption of the cloning project with a new team of researchers coming from universities and a research institute. Campbell picks up the story again saying that Professor Archer again confirmed in October that year, that a new team was being assembled. Campbell quotes Archer as saying "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."

Campbell was privileged to tour the Australia Museum in 2002, during the thick of the project and has an additional page, with photographs, to share the behind-the-scenes experience.

Also in 2002, a 50 minute documentary was released which was produced by Discovery Channel, titled "End of Extinction: Cloning of the Tasmanian Tiger". Centred around the cloning project, the film sees Professor Archer travel to Tasmania to meet Col Bailey and explore the last known haunts of the feared-extinct thylacine. Nick Mooney weighs in to the discussion suggesting that today we have larger numbers of prey species for the thylacine than ever before and as such, we should be seeing more thylacines than ever before. (As an aside, it is my contention that there are larger numbers of prey species precisely because there are fewer apex predators.)

Back on the mainland Professor Archer faces the sceptics, those who say he is playing God, and those who believe research funds should be redirected to conservation of what's left, rather than being wasted on a project with little ultimate value. One question posed is - if you clone the thylacine, what will you do with it? Where will it live? It will be useless without a population, and a population will be useless without habitat.

The film crosses over to the USA to talk with "one of the world's leading genetic scientists", Robert Lanser, who argues that despite not knowing all the answers now, there is still a very viable possibility for the thylacine cloning project to reach fruition. Along the way we are introduced to a number of other cloning successes and the animals they produced.

It is my understanding that as of September 2006 at least, the project was still under way.

Links
Project Director, Mike Archer

Thylacine Cloning Project (a short history)

Further reading

Multimedia

Educational (for children)