Scientists at the Universities of Melbourne and Texas have successfully resurrected a gene from the extinct Tasmanian Tiger. This certainly isn't Jurassic Park - more like a Jurassic Concession Stand - but it's an incredibly important step forward in the study of animals thought to be lost forever.
The team implanted a gene known as "Col2a1" (or "Colly" to its friends) into a laboratory mouse embryo. Before you're traumatized by images of fearsome predatory tiny white mice (though that would give my girlfriend a proper reason to be scared of them), the wider scientific community would like to channel Morbo in shouting "Genes do not work that way!". Col2a1 is only involved in the production of chondrocytes, the cells which produce and maintain cartilage in various joints around the body. The mouse didn't even get any super-flexible tiger joints; the only visible difference is one the scientists purposefully engineered, including a marker sequence which turned cells affected by the Col2a1 blue. The result? Some wicked awesome/cool/frightening pictures of blue-streaked mice embryos, and while they're at it a massive advance in our access to extinct animal DNA.
What's revolutionary is how the DNA fragments the work is based on were dead. Extremely dead, in fact - we're talking "In a museum" dead which is about as dead as you can get. The original samples had been kept in a jar of ethanol for over a century, and considering how DNA breaks down over time even putting Col2a1 together was a massive success. A massive, tiny, fiddly, "super-complicated 3D jigsaw you can only touch with microscopes and chemicals" success. Rather than study the gene in test tubes and chemical baths (in vitro), the team went the extra mile and got it back into a living organism, presumably so they could stand over the incubator and cry "IT'S ALIIIVE!" while lightning crashed dramatically in the background.
The research is extremely well-timed, with current conservation efforts focusing on salvaging as many species as possible with biotissue cataloguing efforts and seed vaults around the world. While the reconstruction of complete animals is a long way off, if possible at all, this research demonstrates that the basic steps are possible - it's only our time and technology that are lacking. And the latter improves with the former. For now the work can be applied in the study of extinct animals in a slightly more convincing manner than the "staring at the fossils and guessing" which has dominated the field to date. If you can recover a fragment of DNA, you can play the world's most exciting game of "Let's see what this bit does."
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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