STOCKHOLM, Sweden – In a breakthrough for the field of genetic research, scientists have successfully isolated and decoded RNA molecules from an extinct species, the Tasmanian tiger. Wielding tissue samples from a 130-year-old specimen housed in Stockholm’s Swedish Museum of Natural History, researchers have unveiled an unprecedented understanding of the animal’s genetic makeup.
The study, recently published in the scientific journal Genome Research, marks the first instance of this kind in genetic history. The decoded genetic material, originating from a Tasmanian tiger known as a thylacine, sheds light on the functioning of the animal’s genes. This particular thylacine had been stored under normal room temperature conditions.
Emilio Mármol Sánchez, the study’s lead author and a computational biologist at both the Centre for Palaeogenetics and SciLifeLab in Sweden, stated that working with RNA provided an opportunity to delve into the cell, the tissues, and uncover the preserved biological data of the thylacine species before it was exterminated.
The researchers’ work paints a clearer picture of the thylacine, a marsupial predator roughly the size of a coyote. The thylacine, a Tasmania-native that vanished around 2,000 years ago, was hunted to extinction by European settlers in Tasmania. The last known living thylacine, referred to as Benjamin, died in captivity in 1936 due to exposure at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.
Despite clarifying that de-extinction was not the objective of his team’s investigations, Mármol Sánchez remarked that a more holistic understanding of the Tasmanian tiger’s genetic constitution could facilitate ongoing efforts to restore the species in some capacity.
Andrew Pask, who is spearheading a project aiming to reestablish the thylacine, applauded the study as a game-changer. Pask, the head of the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab and a professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, acknowledged the eye-opening revelation that RNA, not only DNA, can be extracted from old museum and ancient samples. He encouraged the lessons learned from studying RNA will significantly enhance our knowledge of extinct animals’ biology.
While DNA has served as an indispensable resource for decoding our past, RNA, which is a more fragile and temporal copy of a portion of DNA, tends to break down faster. Until recently, the scientific community believed that RNA wasn’t capable of enduring for a significant length of time. This study has shown the viability of using RNA for future research on extinct species, including the woolly mammoth.
This research breakthrough enriches our understanding of animal biology. As Mármol Sánchez explained, the DNA is like a massive recipe book owned by every restaurant in a city. Still, it is the RNA that allows each restaurant to cook differing dishes from that one reference book, thereby bringing the real essence of another animal’s biology to the fore.