DNA Sequencing Might Help Researchers Bring Back Tasmanian Tigers

The last time humanity was able to see a living thylacine was on September 7th, 1936, in a zoo in Hobart, Australia.

However, like many other species - the Passenger pigeon, for example, once millions of individuals throughout North America - the Tasmanian tiger was in danger long before because it suffered from genetic weakness. European colonists in the nineteenth century saw the predators as a threat to their sheep, and paid a bounty of £1 per carcass. It's the most detailed one ever made of a thylacine, a full genetic blueprint.

Australian scientists have unlocked more secrets about the mysterious Tasmanian Tiger in DNA hidden for over 100 years.

"If two animals adapt to look nearly identical, do you see that also reflected in their genome - can you actually find parts of their DNA that evolve to look very similar?" he says.

"They were this weird and singular species".

Researchers wanted a better look at thylacine genes to help them understand why the predatory marsupials evolved to look and act so much like wolves.

"Among all the recent extinctions, this is one where the blame lies indisputably with us, so perhaps it should be a candidate up there with the passenger pigeon", says Ross Barnett, an evolutionary biologist and expert on ancient DNA at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

At that time, the DNA sequences they had were highly degraded, making sequencing an entire genome nearly impossible.

However, they used tissue from a one-month-old thylacine to perform this study and obtain a much longer nuclear genome.

But the researchers did make a novel discovery: Genetic diversity in the thylacine population plummeted sometime between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago.

The genome will not only help scientists in discovering the past of the specie, but will also enable them to shape up a potential future. Thus, letting them know the animal's ancestors. Similar patterns have been seen in the genome of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii).

But the thylacine's genome sequence revealed another interesting thing: Despite a 160-million-year separation between metatheria, the subbranch (or clade) to which mammals such as the Tasmanian tiger (and other marsupials) belong, and eutherian, the clade that spawned the more familiar placental mammals (including canines), from a purely physical standpoint, it would be hard to deny that thylacine bears a remarkable resemblance to dogs.

A team of researchers, led by the University of Melbourne, has successfully mapped out the entire genetic sequence for the extinct thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger.

According to Pask, the Tasmanian tiger is an "unbelievable" example of "convergent evolution", which is a process where two different organisms end looking practically the same because they both had to evolve in similar environments or ecological niches.

People have been nothing but bad news for the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger. Experts say if the Tasmanian tiger had survived against the human onslaughts of hunting, it would today be in a similar dire situation to the Tasmanian devil and facing extinction, due to its limited gene pool and susceptibility to disease.

Despite the similarities between the dingo and the thylacine, Pask said that the tiger had more in common with kangaroos.

"There's a lot of work down the road to do this, but what I think Pask's group has demonstrated is that what we would have thought 20 years ago was a ridiculous impossibility is increasingly possible", Archer says.

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