Overview:

Yet again, news outlets are talking about a de-extinction project that's been trending off and on with similar claims all year. Who benefits from all this press about bringing the Tasmanian tiger back to life?

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Is the Tasmanian tiger trending for you? You’re not alone. The University of Melbourne has been in the news sporadically all year, each time “announcing” its interest in returning an extinct species, the thylacine, to life. Today, Texas-based and celebrity-backed Colossal Biosciences showed up as the winning bid to partner with the Australian project, after making news last September with plans to resurrect the woolly mammoth. Media sites keep treating the project as late-breaking news. It’s not, but elements of the topic merit ongoing consideration. Here are a few points to keep in mind as you move through related articles:

What is de-extinction?

De-extinction is the attempt to genetically resurrect species that no longer exist, and which were perhaps wiped out by human interference. The process uses gene-editing from preserved DNA samples and the code of their closest living relatives to produce a genome that will yield an animal similar to the one that went extinct.

With the Tasmanian tiger project, ambitious targets for the achievement of this genetic feat range from six to ten years. The plan involves inserting the lab-constructed genome into a stem cell that will be induced to become an embryo, which when placed in a similar species’ womb can then be gestated, birthed, and raised to adulthood, to create breeding stock for natural propagation and environmental reintegration, or “rewilding”.

Is this realistic?

The Tasmanian tiger is a marsupial, which has a far shorter gestational window than the 22 months needed for an elephant. Plans for the mammoth involve using modern-day Asian elephants to gestate offspring created from a range of DNA samples found in tundra ice. Following a similar principle, computational biologists hope to take thylacine DNA (once fully sequenced) and map it against its nearest living relatives, the dunnart and other dasyurids, to figure out what CRISPR-tech gene edits will yield offspring with phenotypes closer to those of a Tasmanian tiger. The team expects the first generation to be only 90 percent thylacine, with later refinements bringing alignment closer to 99.9 percent.

The first major challenge lies in fully sequencing the target DNA. Although Colossal Biosciences boasts around 96 percent for the thylacine, the last 4 percent remains a significant challenge. Then comes the difficulty of successfully gestating and raising to fertile adulthood a lab-designed species. Advances in cloning have paved the way for this research, but whether we can raise enough specimens or offer enough space for their eventual rewilding is also a key matter of debate.

What are the possible benefits?

After Harvard geneticist George Church and technology entrepreneur Ben Lamm launched Colossal Biosciences in September 2021 with the woolly mammoth project, Church argued that their “Arctic elephant” could help fight climate change by transforming the tundra climate from forest to better carbon-capturing grasslands. This argument met with skepticism from conservation scientists, some of whom note that the impact of a species on its environment is not an exact science, and that less extravagant approaches to tundra restoration exist.

The Tasmanian tiger, once a keystone species in Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania, might more tangibly help its own original environment, home to the world’s worst mammalian extinction rate. The resurrection of this apex predator could in theory curtail non-native predators that have been destroying vital herbivores, introducing disease, and transforming landscapes more conducive to better carbon sequestration.

The lab processes involved in this species’ resurrection would also improve our understanding of marsupial genomes and improve related conservation efforts for other keystone species and their environments.

Why the routine news hype?

By around March of this year, Colossal Biosciences had raised $75 million USD from private venture capitalists for its “Arctic elephant” project, and counted among its supporters Chris Hemsworth and Paris Hilton. Private investment now sits at around $105 million, and the biotech company is currently expanding field operations in Texas. Alignment with a prominent university, which lies at the heart of today’s news, lends more scientific authority to its operations, while also broadening industry access to specialized researchers to achieve these ambitious goals.

The company’s investors are not altruistic, though. Lamm anticipates the project yielding returns on investment in the form of carbon-offset credits, eco-tourism opportunities, and a share of the profits reaped by new technologies developed in the process. As with many private-industry scientific endeavors, this one may well yield excellent advances—or prove to be little more than a vanity project in the end.

For now, the benefits of news hype for private fundraising, as also seen in perennial PR campaigning for Saudi Arabi’s megacity project, cannot be overstated.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.