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Researchers Successfully Extract RNA from Extinct Species, Marking a Historic Breakthrough

Geneticists have achieved a groundbreaking scientific feat by isolating and decoding RNA molecules from an extinct Tasmanian tiger specimen, which was over 130 years old and stored at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. This achievement provides valuable insights into how the genes of this long-extinct species functioned and was detailed in a study published in the journal Genome Research.

Lead study author Emilio Mármol Sánchez, a computational biologist at the Centre for Palaeogenetics and SciLifeLab in Sweden, highlighted the significance of RNA in understanding the animal’s biology, explaining that it offers a unique window into the cells and tissues of the thylacine right before its extinction.

The Tasmanian tiger, roughly the size of a coyote, was a marsupial predator that disappeared nearly 2,000 years ago in most regions except Tasmania, where it was hunted to extinction by European settlers. The last thylacine, named Benjamin, lived in captivity and died from exposure in 1936.

While the primary goal of this research wasn’t de-extinction, it could contribute to ongoing efforts to bring back the Tasmanian tiger in some form. Andrew Pask, who leads a project aimed at resurrecting the thylacine, hailed the research as “groundbreaking” and noted that it expands our understanding of extinct species’ biology.

RNA, often considered a temporary copy of DNA, was previously thought to break down quickly and was not expected to endure. However, this study demonstrates that RNA can be retrieved from long-extinct animals, challenging previous assumptions. The research team hopes to extend their work to recover RNA from even older extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth.

By sequencing RNA from the Tasmanian tiger specimen’s skin and skeletal muscle tissues, scientists identified thylacine-specific genes, contributing to the animal’s transcriptome. This RNA-based approach complements DNA analysis, offering a more comprehensive understanding of an animal’s biology. Mármol Sánchez likened DNA to a recipe book for life, while RNA allows each “restaurant” (or cell) to create different dishes based on that reference book.

In essence, this groundbreaking research not only provides new insights into extinct species’ genetics but also opens the door to further discoveries and a deeper understanding of the biology of long-lost creatures.