Groundbreaking Research Extracts RNA from Extinct Tasmanian Tiger


Once upon a time, the Australian continent and its adjoining islands were home to an apex predator, the Tasmanian tiger. Also known as the thylacine, this striped, dog-sized carnivorous marsupial subsisted primarily on kangaroos and other similar prey. Sadly, due to human activities, the species is no longer present in the animal kingdom.

This, however, does not mean the cessation of scientific discovery in relation to this extinct creature. In an unprecedented scientific development, researchers have managed to extract RNA, a type of genetic material found in all living cells and sharing structural similarities with DNA, from the dried skin and muscle fibers of a Tasmanian tiger specimen housed since 1891 in a Stockholm museum.

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While obtaining and analyzing DNA from ancient flora and fauna has been a recurring scientific activity in recent years -with DNA as old as 2 million years having been successfully extracted – this is the first time researchers have been able to retrieve RNA from an extinct species. Compared to DNA, RNA is significantly less stable.

The capability to extract, sequence, and analyze ancient RNA might provide substantial leeway toward potential recreation of extinct species. Moreover, the ability to derive RNA from ancient viruses could assist in comprehending the origins of past pandemics.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and Ribonucleic acid (RNA) are foundational biomolecular companions in the domain of cell biology. DNA is a double-strand that serves as the genetic blueprint for all life. RNA, on the other hand, is single-stranded and implements the genetic data it procures from DNA, thereby synthesizing an organism’s plethora of proteins while also regulating cellular metabolism.

The primary researcher behind this groundbreaking study, geneticist and bioinformatician Emilio Mármol Sánchez, informs that RNA sequencing offers an organic insight into the biological and metabolic regulation that was occurring in Tasmanian tiger cells and tissues prior to their extinction.

Fellow geneticist and study co-author Marc Friedländer offers an insightful perspective stating that in order to comprehend extinct species, scientists need to comprehend not only their gene complements but also which genes were active and what activities they were undertaking.

This study unraveled a few queries regarding RNA’s survival in room temperature conditions, like those of the cabinet where the specimen had been kept. Until now, it was believed that RNA would only survive for a few days or weeks in such conditions, especially if the samples were wet or moist. The specimen from the Swedish Natural History Museum, which was in a semi-mummified condition with preserved skin, muscles, and bones, but no internal organs, proved otherwise.

The demise of the Tasmanian tiger draws a tale of one of the most well-documented human-induced extinction events. This marsupial that bore resemblances to a wolf, save for the tiger-like stripes on its back, witnessed significant population loss due to human arrival about 50,000 years ago. The 18th-century arrival of European colonizers and later declared a threat to livestock, led to its complete eradication. The last officially documented Tasmanian tiger was claimed by mortality in a Tasmanian zoo in 1936.

Efforts to regenerate extinct species such as the Tasmanian tiger, dodo, or woolly mammoth through private ‘de-extinction’ initiatives are underway. However, the viability of recreating an extinct species via gene editing and the underestimated timeline to a final outcome remain contentious issues among the scientific community. Nevertheless, researchers advocate for more comprehensive studies on the biology of these extinct animals.