Researchers successfully decoded the RNA of an extinct animal for the first time

In a groundbreaking scientific achievement, researchers have successfully extracted and decoded RNA from an extinct animal, shedding new light on the biology of the elusive Tasmanian tiger, also known as the thylacine. 

This remarkable feat brings us closer to understanding the cellular functions of this extinct marsupial and may even pave the way for efforts to resurrect it from extinction.

The Tasmanian Tiger's Tragic History

The Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was a captivating creature with distinctive dark stripes adorning its tawny coat. Native to Tasmania, it faced a tragic fate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As sheep farming thrived in Tasmania, thylacines were often accused of preying on livestock. To protect their livestock, bounties were established for each adult thylacine killed, driving these remarkable animals to the brink of extinction. The last known thylacine, held in captivity in Hobart, Tasmania, met its unfortunate end in 1936.

Unveiling the World of RNA

For years, scientists have unraveled the genetic blueprints of extinct animals, such as the woolly mammoth, through DNA analysis. However, DNA only provides a static snapshot of an organism's genetic code. The real magic lies in RNA, which reveals how an organism's cells truly function. Emilio Mármol-Sánchez, a geneticist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, emphasizes that RNA offers insights into "the real biology of the cell."

In a serendipitous discovery, Mármol-Sánchez and his team stumbled upon a well-preserved thylacine specimen at the Natural History Museum in Stockholm in 2020. This specimen, untouched for over a century, held the key to unlocking the mysteries of thylacine biology.

The Remarkable RNA Extraction

The researchers carefully collected six small samples of skin and muscle from the ancient thylacine. Back in the laboratory, they transformed these samples into a fine powder and isolated the crucial RNA-building blocks, nucleotides. Using advanced computational tools, they compared these nucleotide sequences with a vast database encompassing thousands of species, including the thylacine.

Approximately 70 percent of the RNA sequences discovered were definitively thylacine, offering a glimpse into the unique RNA molecules within the specimen. However, due to the specimen's handling over the years, some human RNA contamination was also detected.

Discoveries that Reshape Science

The analysis of the thylacine's RNA provided astounding insights into its cellular functions. Researchers identified distinct protein-coding RNA molecules in the skin and muscle samples. These molecules played vital roles, such as coding cells for slow-twitch muscle fiber, essential for endurance.

Even more strikingly, over 250 thylacine-specific short RNA molecules, known as microRNAs, were uncovered. These microRNAs are the cellular "policemen," regulating cell functions. The discovery of such a rich tapestry of microRNAs within the thylacine specimen offers a unique window into its biology.

Implications for the Future

These findings are nothing short of remarkable. Andrew Pask, a developmental biologist at the University of Melbourne, noted the significance of this research, emphasizing that many scientists rarely explore RNA due to its inherent instability compared to DNA. Furthermore, the thylacine specimen's storage at room temperature, rather than in sterile or frozen conditions, makes these results even more astonishing.

Looking ahead, researchers aspire to resurrect the thylacine using genetic modification techniques involving its closest living relative, the fat-tailed dunnart. These newfound RNA insights could hold the key to controlling the attributes of the resurrected thylacine.

In conclusion, the extraction and decoding of RNA from an extinct Tasmanian tiger have opened a new chapter in our understanding of extinct species' biology. This scientific breakthrough not only reveals the inner workings of an ancient marsupial but also offers hope for the future resurrection of this iconic creature. The thylacine's story, once marked by tragedy, is now illuminated by the promise of scientific discovery and conservation.

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