Cloning Considered to Revive Tasmanian Tiger

In 1886 the Tasmanian government passed a law that mandated the destruction of the species, and bounties for dead tigers led to feverish hunting expeditions over the next 50 years. The only known surviving tigers ended up in zoos, despite a gradual awakening to the fact that the tiger was not a demon and should be protected.

In 1936 legislation was passed by the parliament declaring the tiger to be wholly protected, but it was too late. Two months later, the last known survivor died in a Tasmanian zoo.

Myths about the tiger continued to grow, with frequent reports of sightings in the wild, but little evidence to support them. Owen has documented eight official expeditions between 1957 and 1966 in search of remaining tigers.

"What they had in common was justified optimism at the outset and negative results at the end," he writes.

So does the tiger still thrive somewhere in the dense forests of Tasmania, as so many residents claim? The museum's Archer describes himself as "sadly unconvinced. Without a single hair, dropping or any tangible evidence, I have to remain skeptical."

Tiger From a Jar?

Extinct species have long fascinated Archer, and his courting of the tiger began about 15 years ago when he discovered a pickled tiger pup in the museum. It had been preserved since 1866 in a jar of alcohol rather than the more commonly used formalin, which would have destroyed the DNA.

That was long before Dolly ruled the headlines but even then Archer began thinking about bringing the tiger back.

But its one thing to clone a living species, with an abundance of specimens from which DNA can be extracted, and it's quite another to create a clone from ancient DNA. In all, museum researchers have extracted DNA from three different preserved tigers, but that still leaves enormous gaps in the animal's genome.

The last step in this long and tortured scientific journey will be to put a complete set of the tiger's chromosomes in a living cell, and implant that cell in another animal, probably the closely related Tasmanian devil, which would serve as a surrogate mother.

But in the end, even if it all works, that may not be enough. Owen notes that no tigers reproduced while in captivity, and any cloned animals would likely be quite different from those that once roamed across Tasmania.

The museum has targeted the year 2010 for completion of the project. Even if it fails, Archer maintains, it should lead to numerous scientific breakthroughs, possibly paving the way for cloning extinct animals sometime in the future.

The nightmare in that dream, of course, is that the prospect for cloning might lead to a relaxation of the effort to protect species that are still living.

Uncounted thousands of species have perished at human hands. Bringing the tiger back would be thrilling, but it won't lift that burden. Protecting what we have left must remain our first priority.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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