Samples of DNA have been extracted from the extinct Tasmanian tiger in an attempt to bring the species back to life using gene technology, writes David Montgomery.
The bone marrow tissue, heart, liver and muscle samples were removed from a tiger pup - whose scientific name is thylacine - in April.
Prof Michael Archer, director of the Australian Museum, said the extracted matter contained high-quality DNA, raising the prospect that the animal could be cloned.
The pup's discovery a year ago in a museum storeroom has given scientists hope that they can revive the species, which lived exclusively on the south Australian state of Tasmania but became extinct when the last animal died in captivity in 1936.
There were protests outside the museum in Sidney when the work began on the extraction, inspired by the cloning of Dolly the sheep, in January.
Prof Archer had to cross picket lines to get to his office at the museum and his work was denounced by religious groups who accused the scientists of playing God.
But he defended the project, saying: "Almost all we know about the thylacine is from mythology. Everybody took them for granted and (not) until the last one died in 1936 did the authorities get worried.
"We played God when we pushed the thylacine to extinction. I'm suggesting we play smart human and try to reverse a tragedy that we precipitated."
The pup is not the only preserved thylacine, but it was stored in alcohol rather than the more common formalin, which damages DNA.
Dr Don Coglan, from the museum's evolutionary biology unit, said "The preparation has enough DNA for us to be confident it contained multiple copies of nearly every Tasmanian tiger gene."
The thylacine was a large dog-like, carnivorous marsupial that inhabited Tasmania and the eastern ranges of the mainland. It had distinctive tiger-like stripes across its lower back and rump.
Prof Archer said the next step was to build a library of thylacine's gene structure. He said technological advances were required before the genes could be used to produce a new animal, probably using an Australian marsupial as host, but he hoped to be able to clone the thylacine within a few years.
The tiger's genetic blueprint would have to be inserted into the egg of a close relative, probably the Tasmanian devil or the numbat, for incubation.
Depending on how close a relative the host animal is, the risk of it rejecting the egg could be high - and even if the experiment works, the result might look very different from the true Tasmanian tiger.
The use of a surrogate mother to carry the egg would not result in the birth of a perfect Tasmanian tiger offspring but a hybrid mix of both species' genes.
The cloning of the Tasmanian tiger is being funded by a charitable foundation set up by two former Tasmanians who want to see the re-creation of the beast. Its decline may have been due to the prevalence of the more aggressive dingo.
Earlier this week, scientists announced Australia's first successful cloning experiments, of a sheep and a cow, Matilda. The sheep, bred from cloned embryos, was born a month ago in South Australia state, government scientists said.
The day before, scientists in Victoria state said they had successfully cloned a calf named Suzi.
The animals are the product of separate experiments aimed at improving the quality of wool and beef.
5 th May 2000
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