The Australian Museum has abandoned an ambitious attempt to clone an extinct marsupial known as the “Tasmanian tiger”, or thylacine.

The project to clone the animal using DNA recovered from a pickled thylacine pup was started in 1999 by the museum’s then-director, Mike Archer. But the Sydney museum’s current boss, Frank Howarth, admitted Tuesday to the national broadcaster ABC that the quality of the DNA was too poor to work with. He said that while the museum had the expertise needed to construct a DNA library for the thylacine, it lacked the facilities and skills to conduct “further stages requiring cell culture”.

“The museum’s future involvement in the thylacine project has been re-evaluated,” the museum said in a statement released by the ABC. “In fact, further investigation has now revealed that the thylacine DNA is far too degraded to even construct a DNA library,” it said. “Given this, the project cannot proceed to the next stage.”

Archer, who is now the dean of science at the University of New South Wales, said the cloning project had lost momentum since he left the museum in 2003. But he did not give up hope the thylacine could be brought back to life. “I and other colleagues remain interested in the project and I don’t think that it will simply die because the museum can’t proceed,” he told ABC. “The technology to make it happen is improving all the time. And I believe science has a duty to continue to assemble the building blocks that will be needed to do it.”

The last known thylacine, a striped, dog-like marsupial — animals which keep their young in a pouch — died in captivity in Hobart in 1936 and was believed to have been extinct on the Australian mainland for 2,000 years.

March 15, 2005

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