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Unlocking the Past: Decoding RNA from Extinct Tasmanian Tiger

Decoding RNA from Extinct Tasmanian Tiger

In a historic scientific achievement, geneticists have successfully isolated and decoded RNA molecules from an extinct creature. This groundbreaking discovery sheds new light on the genetic makeup of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, which vanished from the Earth approximately 2,000 years ago. The genetic material was extracted from a 130-year-old thylacine specimen housed in the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. The findings of this extraordinary research were published in the scientific journal Genome Research.

Revealing Ancient Secrets

Lead study author Emilio Mármol Sánchez, a computational biologist at the Centre for Palaeogenetics and SciLifeLab in Sweden, emphasized the significance of this achievement. “RNA gives you the chance to go through the cell, the tissues and find the real biology that has been preserved in time for that animal, the thylacine species, right before they died,” said Mármol Sánchez.

The thylacine, roughly the size of a coyote, was a marsupial predator that once roamed various regions but ultimately met its demise, except for a population in Tasmania, due to hunting by European settlers. The last known thylacine, named Benjamin, succumbed to exposure in 1936 at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.

While the primary goal of this research was not de-extinction, the newfound understanding of the Tasmanian tiger’s genetic makeup could contribute to ongoing efforts to resurrect the species in some capacity.

Resurrecting a Lost Species

Andrew Pask, leading a project aimed at resurrecting the thylacine, hailed the research as “groundbreaking.” He noted, “We had previously thought only DNA remained in old museum and ancient samples, but this paper shows you can also get RNA from tissues.” Pask, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and head of the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab, highlighted the potential of this discovery to deepen our comprehension of extinct animals and enhance the reconstruction of their genomes.

While ancient DNA can endure for over a million years under optimal conditions, RNA, a temporary copy of a DNA section, was believed to degrade rapidly. In 2019, a team managed to sequence RNA from the skin of a 14,300-year-old wolf preserved in permafrost. However, this latest research marks the first time RNA has been extracted from an extinct species.

A Glimpse into the Past and Future

Mármol Sánchez views this study as a proof of concept and envisions further research to recover RNA from even older extinct animals, such as the woolly mammoth.

The research team successfully sequenced RNA from the skin and skeletal muscle tissues of the thylacine specimen, identifying thylacine-specific genes. This information constitutes the animal’s transcriptome, analogous to the genome stored in DNA. While DNA serves as life’s instruction manual within each cell, RNA plays a critical role in producing proteins by transcribing specific DNA segments.

Understanding RNA provides scientists with a more comprehensive view of an animal’s biology. Mármol Sánchez likens DNA to a city’s recipe book, while RNA allows each restaurant (cell) to prepare different dishes from that reference book.

By exploring RNA, scientists can uncover the intricate details of an animal’s metabolism and biology, creating a deeper understanding of these extinct species that once roamed our planet. It’s akin to tasting the unique flavors of various restaurants, revealing the true essence of life that thrived among these ancient creatures.

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