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Extinct Tasmanian Tigers Return ... in Mice

In the first successful experiment of its kind, researchers from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the University of Texas have inserted genes from an extinct species, the Tasmanian tiger, into a mouse and observed a biological function.

The study, published in the international scientific journal PLoS ONE, showed that a certain gene has a similar function in developing cartilage and bone development in the extinct tiger and the mouse.

"This is the first time that DNA from an extinct species has been used to induce a functional response in another living organism," said Dr Andrew Pask of the University of Melbourne's Department of Zoology, who led the research. "As more and more species of animals become extinct, we are continuing to lose critical knowledge of gene function and their potential.

"Up until now we have only been able to examine gene sequences from extinct animals. This research was developed to go one step further to examine extinct gene function in a whole organism," he said.

Tasmanian tigers - the largest known marsupial carnivores of the modern age -- were hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. Also known as thylacine, the last known tiger died in captivity in Tasmania's Hobart Zoo in 1936. Fortunately for scientists, some tissue from young and adult thylacine pouches was preserved by museums throughout the world, and the research team used 100-year-old DNA specimens that they authenticated and then inserted into mouse embryos. The thylacine DNA then showed a function in the developing mouse cartilage, which will later form bone.

"At a time when extinction rates are increasing at an alarming rate, especially of mammals, this research discovery is critical," said senior author Marilyn Renfree of the University of Melbourne's Department of Zoology. "For those species that have already become extinct, our method shows that access to their genetic biodiversity may not be completely lost."