For the first time in history, geneticists managed to isolate and decipher an RNA molecule from a creature that became extinct a long time ago – the Tasmanian tiger. Thanks to this, they will be able to better study this species and perhaps even resurrect it in the future.
The genetic material for the study came from a 130-year-old specimen of a Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), located in the collection of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. A team from Sweden and Norway managed to sequence (read) the RNA of skin, muscle and skeletal tissue from a sample and identify the genes of the Tasmanian tiger. Scientists shared their findings in an article published on Tuesday, September 19 in the scientific journal “Genome Research”.
“RNA offers a chance to precisely study the true biology of an animal that was preserved just before its death,” said study lead author Emilio Mármol Sánchez, a biologist at the Wenner-Gren Institute in Sweden.
As the researchers write, RNA, a temporary copy of a DNA fragment, is more fragile and decays faster than DNA. Until recently, it was believed that it could not survive for hundreds of years. However, it turned out that it is possible.
Reviving the species
The Tasmanian tiger was a predatory marsupial the size of a coyote, belonging to the wolf family (Thylacinidae). It became extinct about 2,000 years ago. The last captive individual, named Benjamin, died in 1936 at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.
Mármol Sánchez said that thanks to this discovery it will be possible to better understand the genetic structure of the Tasmanian tiger and recreate this species in the future.
Andrew Pask, who leads the project to revive the Tasmanian tiger, said the discovery was groundbreaking.
“We previously thought that only DNA remained in old museum collections, but this paper shows that RNA can also be obtained from tissues,” said Pask, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “This will increase our understanding of the biology of extinct animals and help us build much better genomes of extinct creatures,” he added. A genome is the complete genetic information of a living organism.
In 2019, the team sequenced (read) RNA from 14,300-year-old wolf skin that had been preserved in the permafrost.
Main photo source: Emilio Mármol Sánchez et al., Genome Research