"There is a species of giant lizard, the La Palma Giant Lizard, from one of the Canary Islands that went extinct, we thought, about 2,000 years ago and it was rediscovered last year on a very steep rock face, almost inaccessible," said Stuart Simon chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Biodiversity Assessment Subcommittee in a recent interview with CNN on why the final curtain isn't always so final. "This species had been displaced by introduced rats and cats on the island and it was long thought it had gone. But as it turned out these cats and rats couldn't get on the steepest rock faces and the lizard hung on for the last 2,000 years without anyone noticing until someone went down there on a rope and found it. So in fact, with that rediscovery, all the giant lizards that were supposed to have been extinct in the Canary Islands have now been rediscovered in very, very difficult terrain."
But, there are ways other than rediscovery to bring once extinct species back to life: 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.
Tasmaniantiger_2 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 cataloging 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 with Casey Kazan.
Related Galaxy posts:
Bigger Threat than Global Warming -Mass Species Extinction
Bringing Ancient Human Viruses Back to Life: A Jurassic Park or Salvation?