Colossal to de-extinct the Tasmanian tiger. Is it a safe thing to do? – Cape Cod Times

The thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, more properly, Thylacinus cynocephalus. Meet this creature of myth and reality, a sad tale of human destruction and most recently of human hubris, all under the guise of technology power.
Thylacinus cynocephalus once lived across Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. This meat-eating marsupial looked a bit like a brindled dog with an oversized head — as reflected in the translation of its scientific name, which roughly means “pouched dog with wolf head.” They appear in fossils and in aboriginal rock paintings, representing thousands of years on the planet. At some point, the population retreated primarily to Tasmania, but well into modern humanity’s lifeline thylacines roamed across dry forests, wetlands and grasslands.
Their short soft brown fur carried distinct stripes across their backs and down their long tails. They weighed in at about 60 pounds — imagine something like a striped brown Labrador retriever with a pouch for baby thylacines. They were shy around humans and often surrendered without a struggle. We know this because in 1924 settlers brought sheep to Tasmania and forever altered the ecosystem. The Van Dieman’s Land company set a bounty on thylacines in 1830 and by 1910 they were essentially gone. In 1936 the last known thylacine died in captivity and they were officially declared extinct in 1986.
But this summer a company named Colossal announced a partnership with an Australian lab. The goal? To “de-extinct” the thyacine.
It seems that a large donor gave 10 years of funding to establish the TIGRR lab — TIGRR stands for Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research lab — whose mission is to develop technologies for marsupial conservation and restoration. Colossal Bioscience ( says it brings that tech.
The company self-describes itself as the “de-extinction company … a breakthrough bioscience and genetic engineering company that builds radical new technologies to advance the field of genomics.” You might remember the company name as one attached to an effort to resurrect the woolly mammoth. Although frozen mammoth carcasses have yielded DNA for genetic engineering, it isn’t quite clear that this large furred creature of the ice age could thrive in our 21st-century de-forested and heating climate.
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In contrast, the company says the thylacine’s environment remains largely the same as it was at the time of its slaughter, making it an excellent candidate for restoration and re-wilding. It says it will use CRISPR genetic engineering and nine “almost simple steps” to undo the past.
According to an article by Andrew Pask of the University of Melbourne published on ( last March, steps 1 and 2 are already complete. The team says it has the full thylacine genome in hand; a genome basically provides a DNA recipe for an organism. It also has the full genome for a close living relative, in this case, the dunnart, also known as the marsupial mouse. Researchers will use dunnart DNA as a starting template.
The third step, now underway, aligns the two different genomes and identifies every point of variance, creating a master plan for DNA modification. Step 4 gathers dunnart STEM cells, steps 5-7 develop the “assistive reproductive” techniques to create and implant embryos into the host mother, and steps 8 and 9 sort out how a tiny marsupial baby, once born, can be nourished into a living thylacine.
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Remember, marsupials arrive in the world far smaller and less developed than mammals and the pouch provides a sort of external gestation period — which explains how a smaller animal could potentially birth a much larger one.
This all sounds sort of sci-fi and gee-whiz! A whole whoosh of euphoria over how mankind can undo mankind’s mistakes, restore the ecosystem, and revive the planet gushes forth in each announcement. But is playing a god of resurrection really any better than playing the god of death?
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As a species, our destruction of other species — either directly or through wanton disregard for the ecosystem and environment — has marked our travel through time. Some argue we represent the worst invasive species ever, wiping out all in our path. This is decidedly not good, and yet as a species, we seem unable to change. Right now, the global collective of homo sapiens seems bent on erasing the great rainforests, with their diversity and still-unknown depths, not to mention altering the base climate of our world and disrupting pretty much every other living organism. Yet, at the same time, we seem to think tech can Band-Aid it all.
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Marvel fans might recognize the same ethical question in the fictional storyline of the Blip/Snap, when Thanos snapped his fingers while wielding the Infinity Stones and blipped a random half of all living things in the universe out of existence only to have it “made right” five years later by Bruce Banner reversing the blip with Infinity Stones recovered from a different timeline. Are we both Thanos and Bruce Banner rolled into one?
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Tech always brings with it a whole host of deeper questions, questions of ethics and value and hubris. Just because we can, should we? Can we do anything because godlike we believe we can reverse it? And if we do reverse it, what unintended consequences emerge?
We killed the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the dodo, the eastern moa, the blue walleye, the silver trout, the Bali tiger, the golden toad — and the thylacine. The list goes on, at a length that should leave us chilled and resolved to change our ways. Instead, we seem to focus on finding tech to clean up after us. The thylacine may well deserve its rebirth — but make no mistake, technology does not make us a hero nor redeem prior actions. So as you marvel at the potential of tech resurrection, don’t forget to look into our historical mirror at the same time.
Teresa Martin of Eastham lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity. 
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Other columns by Teresa Martin:
Who knew shrimp shells could make this building material 40% stronger?
Dodd’s decision: ‘When it comes to privacy, no one can remain complacent’
The Power of Pup is far more satisfying than artificial intelligence


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