Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should

As usual, First Dog on the Moon scores.

Oh yeah. This again. Some molecular biologists with no training in population genetics or ethics think they can go into a lab and resurrect an extinct species.

Almost 100 years after its extinction, the Tasmanian tiger may live once again. Scientists want to resurrect the striped carnivorous marsupial, officially known as a thylacine, which used to roam the Australian bush.

The ambitious project will harness advances in genetics, ancient DNA retrieval and artificial reproduction to bring back the animal.

They won’t succeed. At best, they’ll assemble a maladapted hybrid something or other to be exhibited in some freak show of a zoo. It won’t be a thylacine, it’ll be a Frankenstein’s monster of an extant marsupial with no home environment and no prospects for the future and no population of conspecifics with which to live and no history. So much bugs me about this story.

They talk about “the thylacine genome”. There’s no such thing. A living population has many genomes. How many individuals are they sampling? How many individuals will they generate? Where will they live? These are carnivores — what will they feed on? Or are they just planning on conjuring up a technology demonstration that they’ll put in a cage and then move on to some other “project”?

They make a token nod towards the problem of extinctions, but aren’t very convincing.

“We would strongly advocate that first and foremost we need to protect our biodiversity from further extinctions, but unfortunately we are not seeing a slowing down in species loss,” said Andrew Pask, a professor at the University of Melbourne and head of its Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab, who is leading the initiative.
“This technology offers a chance to correct this and could be applied in exceptional circumstances where cornerstone species have been lost,” he added.

No, it won’t accomplish any of that. The species is extinct because their habitat is destroyed and people killed them. That’s where you start, by rebuilding their environment, not with PCR machines and microinjection apparatus and flasks in incubators. It’s no surprise who is behind this: a guy with impressive credentials in molecular biology who thinks every problem is a lab exercise.

The project is a collaboration with Colossal Biosciences, founded by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, who are working on an equally ambitious, if not bolder, $15 million project to bring back the woolly mammoth in an altered form.

Yeah, right. He was claiming that he’d be bringing back the mammoth within two years…five years ago. He was also working on a dating app to eliminate genetic diseases (I guess he never heard of eugenics?).

Church has also speculated about resurrecting Neandertals. Nope. Not going to happen. If his thoughts on these matters were more than a millimeter deep, he wouldn’t be jumping onto high profile media to promote these sci-fi fantasies. It’s bad science.


  1. raven says

    I thought this has already been done before.
    How is Jurassic Park doing these days?

    Yeah, the technology we have is nowhere near what we need to bring back extinct vertebrates.

  2. raven says

    We have resurrected a few extinct life forms.
    Not dinosaurs or marsupials though.

    The human genome is 8% retroviruses that are basically wreckage from past invasions. These scientists just fixed them by mixing and matching copies.
    The Phoenix retrovirus had been dead for 5 million years.
    Phoenix Rising: Scientists Resuscitate A 5 Million-year-old Retrovirus
    Date: October 31, 2006 Source:Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
    Summary: (edited for length)
    A team of scientists has reconstructed the DNA sequence of a 5-million-year-old retrovirus and shown that it is able to produce infectious particles. The retrovirus — named Phoenix — is the ancestor of a large family of mobile DNA elements, some of which may play a role in cancer. The study is the first to generate an infectious retrovirus from a mobile element in the human genome. The findings are reported in Genome Research.

    A team of scientists has reconstructed the DNA sequence of a 5-million-year-old retrovirus and shown that it is able to produce infectious particles.

    “Phoenix became frozen in time after it integrated into the human genome about 5 million years ago,” explains Dr. Thierry Heidmann, lead investigator on the project. “In our study, we’ve recovered this ancestral state and shown that it has the potential for infectivity.”

    Retroviruses, whose genomes consist of RNA, can create DNA “copies” of the RNA genomes and incorporate them into the genomes of their hosts. Phoenix belongs to a sub-category of retroviruses–known as HERVs (human endogenous retroviruses)–which inserted copies into the human germline millions of years ago. These copies were subsequently passed on from generation to generation. Remnants of HERVs now comprise nearly 8% of the human genome, but most were rendered inactive long ago by mutations.

    Heidmann and his colleagues set out to re-activate one family of HERVs, called the HERV-K(HML2) family, an evolutionarily “young” family of retroviral elements. They aligned HERV-K(HML2) elements, determined their consensus sequence, and then constructed a retrovirus–Phoenix–from the consensus sequence by mutating existing HERV-K(HML2) copies.

    In addition, the researchers showed that Phoenix could form particles capable of infecting mammalian cells in culture. Infectivity was very low, presumably because host cells have evolved mechanisms to resist uncontrolled virus propagation, as has been repeatedly observed for retroviruses from experimental animals.

    “Phoenix has produced some ‘genomic offspring’ that may be responsible for the synthesis of the retroviral particles that can be observed in some human cancers such as germline tumors and melanomas,” says Heidmann. “This work will be helpful in tracking down the role of retroviruses in these human diseases.”

    The work was conducted by Heidmann’s group at the Institut Gustave-Roussy in collaboration with Gérard Pierron from the Institut André Lwoff. Dr. Marie Dewannieux, formerly with Heidmann and now a postdoc at the University College of London, is the first author on the paper. The work was funded by the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), the Institut Gustave Roussy, the Université Paris XI, and the Ligue Nationale contre le Cancer (Equipe Labellisée).

  3. gijoel says

    @1 You have to wonder why anyone would visit a zoo where the lions periodically break out of their cages and eat the visitors.

  4. weylguy says

    The title reference to Dr. Ian Malcolm of 1993’s Jurassic Park is appropriate. The idea behind resurrecting extinct species is largely rooted in entertainment and profit, like having a Tylosaur performing at Sea World. Questions like what would they eat, where would they live, would they be allowed to breed, etc. are never considered.

  5. raven says

    The other virus we have resurrected is the 1918 Influenza virus that caused the major worldwide pandemic.

    The sequences were retrieved from archival autopsy material and frozen bodies in Alaska.
    The purpose here was to understand just why the 1918 virus was so lethal so we can do something about it if it happens again.
    Strangely enough, the 1918 virus doesn’t look much different from its descendants which are still circulating today.

    Pathogenesis of the 1918 Pandemic Influenza Virus
    Tokiko Watanabe ,Yoshihiro Kawaoka Published: January 27, 2011
    PLOS Pathogenesis

    The Resurrection of the “Spanish” Influenza Virus
    Although the complete sequences of the viral RNAs of the 1918 pandemic virus have been determined, the viral genome does not contain any motifs known to be associated with high virulence [5]. Therefore, to understand the extraordinary virulence of the 1918 pandemic virus, it was important to re-create the virus and examine its pathogenicity in animals. The recent technological advancement of reverse genetics, which allows the generation of infectious influenza viruses entirely from cDNAs [11], made possible the re-creation of the 1918 pandemic virus. Tumpery’s group at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [12] and we [13] succeeded in rescuing viruses bearing all eight RNA segments of the 1918 virus by using reverse genetics. Now that we had all of the materials required, we could study the molecular properties associated with the unusual virulence of the 1918 pandemic virus.

  6. raven says

    Horsepox has also been recently resurrected.
    This shows that smallpox can now be resurrected without too much effort.
    We almost have enough formerly extinct viruses for a Virus Park exhibit.

    How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA
    A study that brought horsepox back to life is triggering a new debate about the risks and power of synthetic biology

    An unpublished study suggests that making variola, the virus that causes smallpox, is neither expensive nor difficult. EYE OF SCIENCE/SCIENCE SOURCE

    Eradicating smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, took humanity decades and cost billions of dollars. Bringing the scourge back would probably take a small scientific team with little specialized knowledge half a year and cost about $100,000.

    That’s one conclusion from an unusual and as-yet unpublished experiment performed last year by Canadian researchers. A group led by virologist David Evans of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, says it has synthesized the horsepox virus, a relative of smallpox, from genetic pieces ordered in the mail. Horsepox is not known to harm humans—and like smallpox, researchers believe it no longer exists in nature; nor is it seen as a major agricultural threat. But the technique Evans used could be used to recreate smallpox, a horrific disease that was declared eradicated in 1980. “No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” says virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

  7. hemidactylus says

    @6 Marcus Ranum

    Polio hadn’t gone extinct. It disappeared in places like the US for a while. The places where it disappeared are using a vaccination series that induces systemic immunity. Those places where it is still found continue to use the vaccinations that induce mucosal immunity in the gut but because the target virus is attenuated not killed there’s risk of mutations conferring infectious properties which appears to be the case with cases of detection in the UK and US. Someone from an area using the potentially mutable infectious vaccine has apparently spread that version to susceptible antivax populations. In other words polio can in some cases be vaccine derived:

  8. hemidactylus says

    Since I’m at risk of misremembering details here’s another authoritative site:

    “This intestinal immune response to OPV is probably a reason why mass campaigns with OPV have been shown to stop person-to-person transmission of wild poliovirus. In very rare cases, the administration of OPV results in vaccine-associated paralysis associated with a reversion of the vaccine strains to the more neurovirulent profile of wild poliovirus. In a few instances, such vaccine strains have become both neurovirulent and transmissible and have resulted in infectious poliomyelitis.”

    The killed virus seems to do more to prevent horrific symptoms when exposed where the attenuated oral virus does more to tamp down transmission.

  9. microraptor says

    Thylacines are an especially poor candidate for being resurrected by cloning and artificial uteruses. They’re marsupials, which means that they’re born in an undeveloped state and then have to be carried in their mother’s pouch for a period of time. Given how little is known about the thylacine, we don’t have the slightest clue how long that takes. Or what the conditions inside the pouch like temperature are supposed to be.

  10. hemidactylus says

    @12- StevoR

    Whatabout drop bears? One could patent a manufacture a drop bear detection device using this phenomenon if so.

    The platypus is an oddball egg laying monotreme not marsupial.

  11. hemidactylus says

    Learning something new about viruses every day. Thanks outbreaks (sarcasm).

    “Global immunisation efforts and high-quality surveillance led to the last human case of wild poliovirus type 2 in 1999. By 2012, the last wild poliovirus type 3 infection was identified. Certification of eradication occurred in 2015 for wild poliovirus type 2 and 2019 for wild poliovirus type 3 infection.1 However, endemic WPV1 transmission persists as a major concern in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Outside the endemic settings of WPV1 transmission, most cases of paralytic polio have been caused by circulating VDPV types in environments with low immunisation coverage.3, 4”

    Two types of poliovirus are apparently extinct. WPV1 remains. VDPV stands for vaccine-derived poliovirus and perhaps in a sense vaccine-derived type 2 poliovirus found in the US is a resurrection of type 2. I don’t know if that’s technically true. Way outside my wheelhouse.

  12. ealloc says

    It’s not all cranks. In a more positive application of genetic technology, apparently trials for a CRISPR-based gene editing therapy for sickle cell anemia have gone well, working in all 31 patients , and will proceed to “late stage” trials. The method is to extract patient stem cells from blood, replace the BCL11A gene using CRISPR, and then re-settle them in the patient’s bone marrow (using chemo to kill the old marrow cells, which is the unpleasant/dangerous part).

    Amazing to think that finally, over 70 years after Linus Pauling et. al. introduced the idea of “Molecular Diseases” using Sickle-Cell as the example (in his 1949 paper “Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease.”), it might finally be cured using personalized genetic treatment, much as he and others envisioned.

    On the downside, the stocks of these CRISPR companies has crashed this year, by 40% in the case of this company. Apparently not because the technology is bad (it seems promising), but, to quote from an article, because investors have realized that “There’s a realism that while the technology might be wonderful and awesome, the cold hard reality of the business is what am I going to get paid for it?”.

  13. StevoR says

    @ hemidactylus : “The platypus is an oddball egg laying monotreme not marsupial.”

    D’oh! Yup. You’re right. (Blushes.)

  14. hemidactylus says

    At the risk of beating this into the ground but it’s newsworthy here is Vincent Racaniello on the recent stuff about poliovirus. I had been going on the assumption that OPV is still necessary. Not so sure now but he mentions a version with a Type 2 less likely to undergo reversion. In the US the prevalence became largely vaccine derived poliovirus prompting the switch to safer IPV. The point he makes about vaccinating against vaccine itself (vs against dwindling or nonexistent wild type???) is a real kicker.

  15. says

    Leaving all of the (legitimate) concerns about gestation and environmental problems aside:

    These animals — whatever they are — will have no parents to teach them the species-associated-but-not-inheritable skills necessary for survival. In any environment, let alone whatever environment they find themselves in (which leads to further feedback-loop questions on their genetic viability, but whatever). So they’re at best going to be zoo creatures, with zookeepers throwing them chucks of kangaroo because they’ll never learn to hunt…

  16. skeptuckian says

    Most species that are going extinct are unknown to science because they are living in tropical forests being decimated by deforestation. These scientists are basically creating circus animals for human entertainment.

  17. raven says

    Is the numbat related to the Tasmanian tiger?

    It is not closely related to any living marsupial (one of its closest relatives is the now extinct thylacine or Tasmanian tiger), it’s the sole member of its taxonomic family, lacks a pouch, and is one of only two marsupials to be active exclusively during the day.

    Numbat | Myrmecobius fasciatus – EDGE of Existence › species › numbat

    I had no idea what a numbat is.

    It is the banded anteater and eats only ants and mostly termites.
    ” It is also the only marsupial to feed strictly on social insects: individuals suck up around 20,000 termites a day with their long, sticky tongues. Once widespread across Australia, the species is now extinct in over 99% of its former range, primarily as a result of introduction of foxes by European settlers.”

    If it doesn’t have a pouch, how does it reproduce?

  18. brightmoon says

    Being honest, see that video of that thylacine walking around made me wish they were still around. So while I agree with PZ about his legitimate complaints, the little kid in me still wants some! Just like I’d wanted a quagga too

  19. nomdeplume says

    Thank you for this PZ, I’ve been hammering away at this dangerous nonsense since Mike Archer first suggested he was doing it about 30 years ago. As well as everything else you point out, this “organism” would come naked into the world – no internal or external parasites, no insects depending on its droppings, no social conditioning of behaviour, and so on. It is not a Thylacine.

    This stuff about “bringing back from extinction” gives politicians and the public an excuse to destroy more habitat – doesn’t matter if stuff goes extinct we’ll just bring them back.

    It all makes me very angry.

  20. DanDare says

    The Walk and Chew Gum Project
    Get people enthused about de extinction.
    Tell them we must restore welcoming environments.
    Spend big on protecting and restoring environments.
    The first proect is likely to fail but the second one is still worthy.

  21. John Morales says

    Jaws @18,

    These animals — whatever they are — will have no parents to teach them the species-associated-but-not-inheritable skills necessary for survival. […]
    So they’re at best going to be zoo creatures, with zookeepers throwing them chucks of kangaroo because they’ll never learn to hunt…

    Um, we adopted a tiny kitty from a shelter. Has bedding, toys, catfood, food scraps, never was taught the species-associated-but-not-inheritable skills necessary for survival. Has no problem catching mice, lizards, birds…

    (We sure didn’t teach her)

  22. silvrhalide says

    @25 Congrats on the new adoptee!
    Just want to point out that in the wild, large cats have most of their offspring die before reaching maturity. For that matter, plenty of feral cats have their kittens die from a variety problems–disease, not enough food, other cats, other predators, etc.
    Sure, your kitty has all the instincts of a hunter. BUT you provided enough of a care & food cushion that she lived long enough and well enough to learn how to hunt. Not necessarily the case in the wild (or in uncaring suburbia & urban areas, for that matter.)
    Also, your kitty was 100% domestic housecat. Not something missing possibly critical parts of the original genome that may or may not have been replaced with substitute genes from a semi-related species.
    Your kitty was gestated in a 100% domestic housecat uterus. Not a “this is our best guess at a substitute species mother”. We don’t know what kind of effect a different species birth mother would make, because up until now, no one has actually been dumb enough to try it. But I would like to point out that even in same species mothers, the length of gestation, maternal stress, maternal nutrition and maternal disease/health all have a profound–and lifelong–effect on the offspring. So it’s not exactly a stretch to think that there would be issues with a hybrid thylacine at least partially gestated in a different species, for what would certainly be a different amount of time growing in a marsupial pouch.

  23. unclefrogy says

    no one has managed to “reproduce” any whole DNA of any animal or plant now actually living from bits and pieces, or man made strands I am aware of or this project would be a whole lot easier.
    there other thing to consider is one individual would just be the first step in bringing back any living organism from extinction. It would take many generations before you could say it would truly be back otherwise it is just a lab specimen
    a fool and his money comes to mind

  24. christoph says

    @ John Morales, # 25: Cats can hunt for sure, but kittens need to be taught that quick neck-breaking kill technique from their parents, or they just bite and tear at the prey until it dies. Gruesome.

  25. John Morales says

    christoph @29, it’s worse than that.

    I’ve had cats before, but this is the first one that catches mice from outside and brings them inside as toys. She eventually gets bored, and we end up with a severely traumatised mouse we have to catch and release outside. ‘Cos we’re pussies.

    In short, she ain’t hunting as such — she’s basically playing. It’s just fun for her.

    (Kinda awful, but there it is. Also, I thought cats were supposed to suppress domestic mice, not drag them into the household)