The Importance of Biodiversity

Conservation is often about protecting the species that still wander around our Earth. But what about those that once did but have gone extinct? In this Halloween-inspired episode, we take a look into how one spooky idea has gone from science fiction to science fact, de-extinction style.

Dr. Kaylee Byers takes us to the upside-down world of wild animals in Australia. She sits down with Dr. Axel Newton whose research addresses how to resurrect a species that has been extinct for nearly a century. Also joining her is Dr. Carolyn Hogg who uses the latest genomic technology to understand the impacts of reintroducing endangered species into their native habitats. In this wacky tale of resurrection and ‘devils’ will the spirit of scientific discovery mean incredible changes for the future, or is a line being crossed that we can’t come back from?


6:30 - 8:30

“‘The tragic story of the Tasmanian Tiger with Dr. Axel Newton”

18:32 - 23:46

"Save the devils, Dr. Carolyn Hogg on a mission to save an Australian icon"

25:39 - 31:05

"How to resurrect and extinct species, Dr. Axel Newton and the Thylacine"




Phoebe Melvin: Okay, well.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Hey, it’s Kaylee. Welcome back to Nice Genes!, but first, that’s producer, Phoebe Melvin.


Phoebe Melvin: G’day, everyone.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: She’s in Melbourne, Australia.


Phoebe Melvin: Okay, so here I am at the University of Melbourne, and I am going to meet up with Dr. Axel Newton.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: She is Australian, and she’s meeting up with her mate.

Read Transcript


Phoebe Melvin: Oh, hey. Hey, Axel.


Dr. Axel Newton: Hey, how’s it going?


Phoebe Melvin: Thanks for having us today. Should we get started in the lab?


Dr. Axel Newton: No worries. Welcome to the Department of Zoology. This way.


Phoebe Melvin: Okay.


Dr. Axel Newton: That’s our entrance-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: She’s descending into the belly of Dr. Newton’s laboratory-


Phoebe Melvin: All right, let’s head up.


Dr. Axel Newton: All right, we’re off to level one.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: … where some pretty wild science is happening.


Dr. Axel Newton: Just down here on the end we’ve got our Tiegs Museum.


Phoebe Melvin: Oh, fantastic.


Dr. Axel Newton: All right. Here we are.


Phoebe Melvin: Perfect. All right.


Dr. Axel Newton: Flip on our lights…


Phoebe Melvin: Whoa, what is that?


Dr. Axel Newton: That’s a moa. That’s a genuine extinct moa.


Phoebe Melvin: That is a big bird.


Dr. Axel Newton: Big bird. We’ve also got some rodents-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: And Dr. Newton’s experiment sets his sights on the animals and extinct species around him.


Dr. Axel Newton: … we’ve got some primates, a skeleton of a tiger. So, I think that we have an obligation, or a moral responsibility, if we can possibly bring back this species, I think we owe it to the species to try and do so.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: You heard that right. You’re listening to Nice Genes!, where we peak into the world of genomics, sponsored by Genome British Columbia. I’m your host, Dr. Kaylee Byers, your pocket detective, into the science verse.


Phoebe Melvin: All right, so show us what you got.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Back to the lab.


Dr. Axel Newton: Here we go. So, this rarely sees the actual light of day, but-


Phoebe Melvin: Wow.


Dr. Axel Newton: We have a collection of three skulls here at the museum.


Phoebe Melvin: Okay.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: They’re looking at the preserved remains of a thylacine.


Dr. Axel Newton: This one was broken.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: … or better known as…


Dr. Axel Newton: It’s called the Tasmanian tiger, but they’re also known as the Tasmanian wolf, and it’s sort of evolved this dog or wolf-like-[shape]


Phoebe Melvin: And are these the skulls that you’ll be using to get the genetic information for your project?


Dr. Axel Newton: No. So unfortunately, these ones, the DNA would be quite degraded. So, we use a preserved young specimen in ethanol, that’s housed over at the Melbourne Museum, and we get some really good quality DNA from that because we actually get the soft tissue…


Dr. Kaylee Byers: In this episode, we’re looking at a couple of big questions. Our planet is facing a significant threat due to climate change. It’s getting hotter and harder for life on the planet to survive, but with sciencey tools like genomics, we’re better positioned than ever before to save the critters on this planet, and maybe even bring a few back.

So, what line should, or shouldn’t we cross when it comes to protecting our fellow species? If we graduate from being passive observers of the natural environment, to becoming active interventionists, are we going too far? To begin unraveling these existential questions-


Dr. Axel Newton: Test. Test. Can you hear me all right?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s great.

I spoke with the enthusiastic scientist himself, Dr. Axel Newton. Recently there’s been some big news that’s come out from the work you’re doing. So, you and the rest of the Andrew Pask lab had a huge announcement.


Dr. Axel Newton: Yeah, absolutely. So, this year’s just been a whirlwind year. So very recently now, we’ve just gone into a partnership with a company called Colossal Biosciences who’ve provided a very, very substantial donation to really look at de-extincting, the thylacine as something that we can really feasibly do.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Can you tell us how you ended up here? How did you become a scientist inspired to resurrect long gone animals?


Dr. Axel Newton: Right. So it’s actually super cliche, but one of my biggest inspirations, or dreams as a child, was seeing Jurassic Park and seeing them bringing back dinosaurs, and also movies like Gattaca… just this prospect of genetic engineering, something that’s always been very interesting to me.

Long story short, I was very fortunate enough to meet my current boss, Andrew Pask at the University of Melbourne, who I heard was doing some work on thylacine genetics. And being an extinct animal, this immediately resonated with me, and was something that I really wanted to do. So, I knocked on Andrew’s door and the rest was history.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s very cool. And does it look anything like the Jurassic Park future that you envision?


Dr. Axel Newton: No, not quite. It’s funny, as you learn more, you realize how unfeasible Jurassic Park is, as a concept, which is a bit of a bummer, but you learn some really exciting things along the way.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Plus, we all get to just enjoy Sam Neill. So it’s fine.


Sam Neill: Frog DNA to fill in the gene sequence gaps.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Sam Neill’s the love of my life.


Dr. Axel Newton: And Jeff Goldblum, of course.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I’ll just leave it there.


Jeff Goldblum: I’m fairly alarmed here.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: And from those humble Jurassic Park inspired roots, Dr. Newton is now one of the researchers tasked with bringing back the Tasmanian tiger, a species that hasn’t walked the earth, or done much of anything really, since 1936.

What does a Tasmanian tiger look like?


Dr. Axel Newton: So, the Tasmanian tiger is a marsupial, it has a pouch. It’s very closely related to Tasmanian devils, but it evolved to look like a large dog. And this is a really interesting phenomenon known as convergent evolution. Convergent evolution could be something like the evolution of flight, so between birds and bats. Could also be the evolution to an aquatic environment like sharks and dolphins, which have a very similar body plan.

So, the thylacine and dogs and wolves, last shared a common ancestor about 160 million years ago. Yet despite that, they’ve independently evolved these very similar characteristics. So, it’s a very remarkable animal, and really unique in that sense.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So, we’ve got this dog- like Tasmanian tiger, what’s the tiger for? Do they have stripes?


Dr. Axel Newton: They do have stripes, yeah. So that was one of the most distinguishing and interesting features about them, is they had these very distinct brown stripes down their hind quarters. And that’s what actually gave them the tiger label, even though again, they look nothing like a tiger, other than the superficial stripes. And they certainly aren’t related to one. So, they are also known as Tasmanian wolves.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Can you give us a bit of a history lesson for how the tiger got extinct?


Dr. Axel Newton: Sure. So once upon a time, not only was there the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, but there was a bunch of other species within the same family. And once their original historic range was all throughout Papua New Guinea, and mainland Australia. And then throughout time, and through a few different processes, they think that the arrival of Indigenous Australians, changes in climate, a bunch of other factors, they think really started to push them down further, further south. So, they were forced to cross down into Tasmania, through a land bridge that once existed, and that’s where they became isolated within Tasmania itself.

Then from there, there was a really unfortunate event and one of the darkest moments in human history, I believe, is that’s when the European settlers came and started to colonize Tasmania. And then during this process, the Tasmanian tiger was actually labeled by these settlers as a “sheep killer”. And through such, a government enforced bounty was placed on these animals, offering, I think it was £1 at the time, per animal.


Phoebe Melvin: Okay, so what do we have here?


Dr. Axel Newton: So here, I’m actually holding one of our larger specimens. We call this one Rex, but this is a skull of an adult, quite a large adult, thylacine, probably about a hundred or so years old…

And through that government-imposed bounty scheme, the thylacine was unfortunately eradicated, and completely hunted to extinction.

…And you can actually see one of the interesting features about this skull, is that it has a bullet hole through the nose, which really demonstrates the fact that these guys were hunted through the government-imposed bounty scheme.

There was a small population of them, that were kept within the zoos, but they died out quite quickly unfortunately. And then the last individual who was known as Benjamin, died in one of the zoos in 1936, and that was the official end of the species. It’s a really, really unfortunate story.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: And is there any reason in particular, that you think we should bring them back?


Dr. Axel Newton: I think that we have a moral obligation to do so. We’re not talking about an animal here that just went extinct because of natural processes. This wasn’t the dinosaurs being wiped out. This wasn’t the mammoth progressively being wiped out either. This was an animal that existed within… There are people on this planet right now that are still alive, that saw these animals in real life.


Phoebe Melvin: I spoke to my Grandma yesterday, she remembers seeing one at the zoo in Adelaide when she was a little girl.


Dr. Axel Newton: There you go.


Phoebe Melvin: So, there are still people alive who remember seeing thylacine.


Dr. Axel Newton: This was an animal that was here not very long ago, and was hunted to extinction. They were eradicated by human intervention.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I think that’s great. And I want you to know that I saw the parallel to Jurassic Park there, and Jeff Goldblum’s speech around, ” Dinosaurs had their shot.”


Jeff Goldblum: They had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: And this is not the same thing.


Dr. Axel Newton: No, it’s-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I want you to know that I saw you, and I loved it.


Dr. Axel Newton: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, they totally had their shot. This was an animal that never really got to have its shot.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: We’re going to get into the nitty gritty of exactly how scientists are using genomics and DNA to bring extinct species back, like the Tasmanian tiger. But, there’s one important step we need to touch on first.

It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m excited to meet you.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yeah, lovely to meet you too.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So I reached out to another Aussie guide-


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Okay, cool.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: … to chat about bringing species back from the brink.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yeah, let me know when you want to go.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Can you introduce yourself to us?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yes, I’m Dr. Carolyn Hogg. And I guess if I had to describe myself, I would describe myself as a conservation biologist who uses the latest genome technologies, and artificial intelligence to try and figure out better ways to inform management decisions around conservation, translocations, and captive breeding.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Our big question in this episode is about that line that exists between observing the natural world around us, and then actually intervening in it. And so, where do you think we should sit there?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Well, I think unfortunately in today’s world, the natural world is not the natural world of a hundred years ago. We’ve fragmented the landscape severely, we’ve impacted it with agriculture. Climate change is causing massive effects with forest fires, like mega fires all over the world. There’s drought. There’s floods.

And so really, there is no longer the natural world that we can leave to fend for itself, because we’ve separated the landscape too much. And so now is the time to start being a bit smarter about how we make decisions, and how we manage that landscape moving forward.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: And actually, you were talking a little bit about forest fires as just one example. So, can you tell us a little bit about what Australia has faced in terms of forest fires?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yeah so, Australia is a land of extremes. It’s a land of fire, and flood, and drought. So we go through these massive cycles of drought, and then we have these massive cycles of floods. And unfortunately, it’s getting worse, in more recent years. The Australian bush is designed to burn. So a lot of our trees and our plants won’t actually germinate if they don’t have smoke.

And so our landscape’s always burnt historically. But what’s happened in 2019/2020, it was the end of a significant drought period. Land management practices have changed a lot over the last 50 years. And so essentially, it was the perfect storm.


Television Presenter: Talk there about the wildfires that have devastated parts of Australia. Hundreds are still burning, mainly across the southeast of the country, where the authorities are desperately trying to prevent…


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: So in New South Wales, where I live, we had large tracks of land burnt during the 2019/2020 mega fires which went all over the world, saw what happened. For koalas in the in the state that I live in, they lost 25% of their habitat, in those fire events. And in some areas where we knew that was the last population of a frog species, or some of the streams, they actually went out and brought the animals into captivity, and kept them in for captive breeding programs. And they’ve been releasing them back into the wild.

Woolworths, which is one of our biggest supermarket chains here in Australia, donated, I can’t even remember now, how many hundreds of tons of carrots. And they flew helicopters over the National Park mountain range and threw carrots out the door just so the herbivores, such as the rock wallabies, and the macropods, had something to eat. They estimated that 3 million individual species died during those fires here in New South Wales. These fires, they burned so hot, and so fast, it literally looked like the face of the moon.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s heartbreaking.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yeah, it’s just soul destroying. For us as conservation biologists in Australia, it really felt like the opportunity to raise the profile about biodiversity loss, and conservation, and the crisis that we find ourselves in.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So, thinking about the spaces that humans occupy, they don’t look like what they used to look like. And, one term that’s used for thinking about turning those spaces back into something, what we might consider to be a little more “wild” is “rewilding”. So can you tell us a little bit about what rewilding is and how that comes into play with your work?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Essentially, rewilding, or conservation translocations, is using the ability to move species, whether that be plants, or animals, back into our landscape we know historically they existed in. And in some of those landscapes, the individual species still exist, but because they’ve been separated from other species for a long period of time, you essentially are doing gene flow, so you’re augmenting the population.

So, I think rewilding is this term that’s all encompassing for revegetation, putting animals back, putting plants back. And then, trans-conservation translocations is really the act of moving individual species around, to try and facilitate that wild type environment to come back.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Rewilding is one of the ways scientists are trying to piece back habitats and ecosystems to look a little bit like they did before. It’s an answer to the way we’ve typically gone about conservation, rooted in 18th century philosophies. Historically, conservation has been designed to designate huge parks in order to protect habitats and animals.


Radio Announcer: Protection and propagation of wildlife are important parts of the program, and development plans are drawn with this in mind.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Essentially, meaning we would fence off the wild places of the world from us. And when it comes to our human spaces, we have a cart blanche to do what we’d like. But with things like climate change, we’re realizing that those sins don’t start or stop at our self- imposed borders.

Whether it’s repairing the damage from big natural events like wildfires, or nurturing species or environments harmed by human activities, rewilding is one way scientists recommend to help fix things. And for Dr. Hogg, this includes the animals that have been hit hard by these events


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: [Releasing Tasmanian devil, which screams]


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So, that clip we just heard is of you releasing a Tasmanian devil back into the wild. Can you give us a bit of a synopsis of what happened in that video and what has happened to Tasmanian devils in the past? Why are you studying them?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Okay, so I’ll start with what happened in the clip, and then explain what’s happened to devils. So, the sounds that you heard that really high pitched screeching sound is the sound that devils make. And that’s actually how they got their name. So Tasmanian devils are a nocturnal marsupial carnivore. They’re the largest marsupial carnivore in the world. They won that salubrious title in 7th of September, in fact, in 1936 when the last Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo, in Hobart.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Just an aside here, folks, the Tasmanian devil, Dr. Hogg is researching, the one of Looney Tunes fame, is not the same as the currently extinct Tasmanian Tiger, mentioned earlier by Dr. Newton. Totally different animal.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Tasmanian devils actually den underneath people’s houses and they scream like that, underneath your house. And so, when Europeans first arrived in Australia, to them it sounded like the devil living underneath the house, and that’s literally how they got their name.

So, that devil was a little bit unhappy when we opened the trap door, and then you hear us just dumping it out of the PVC pipe trap that we trap them in, and it running off into the forest. So the reason we study Tasmanian Devils is in 1996, Christo Baars, who was a National Geographic photographer, took a photograph of a devil with these massive open tumors on its face in the northeast part of the state of Tasmania. And jump ahead a few years, it turned out that the tumors were, in fact, an infectious cancer.

DFTD, or Devil Facial Tumor Disease, as it’s known, has now spread across about 90% of the state of Tasmania. And we’ve seen probably population decline of about 80% in the entire species across its range. And then so if we lose Tasmanian Devils out of the landscape, that’s just going to have knock on consequences for all the other smaller marsupials that live in the critical weight range, between about 500 grams and one and a half kilos. And so yeah, that’s one of the key reasons why we are trying to make sure we can keep devils in the landscape.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Dr. Hogg was tasked with finding a way to save the Tasmanian devil.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: I’d been tasked with managing the devil insurance population. And I think we had about 250 devils in about 12 zoos in 2010. And I had to question around whether the devil founders that came into the insurance population, were they related to one another. And someone was like, “Oh, there’s this woman at Sydney Uni, Kathy Belov, and she’s able to do genetics.” So, I walked into her office and I was like, “Someone told me you do genetics.” And what I discovered later, is Kathy’s actually a world specialist in immunogenetics in marsupials. So, it was definitely the right person’s door to knock on.

Long story short is we’ve now sequenced probably close to four and a half thousand devils, between the insurance population, and all over the state of Tasmania. It’s the most comprehensive study now, where we actually have a handle on the genetic structuring across the state.

So, Tasmanian devils are actually one of the most genetically depauperate species I work on. We sometimes joke that it’s a game of clones, they’re just very, very similar to one another. And so, we suspect it’s because of this low levels of genetic diversity, particularly in the immune genes. And that’s one of the reasons we believe the cancer can transmit so readily between the individuals.

So it starts off as a little pimple, usually on the inside of the lip, or on the outside of the lip. And essentially the tumor just grows. So the tumor grows to such an extent, it can destroy the jaw, eat away half of the face, block the respiratory system, block it so they can’t feed, so they starve today. It is gruesome. It’s quite a gruesome disease.

And so, the way it’s transmitted is devils, particularly during breeding season, males and females will bite one another around the facial area, when they’re mating. And that seems to be the biggest incidence of the transmission of the cancer. So, you’ve got a combination of factors. You’ve got devils have low genetic diversity, and then you have a cancer which biologically is very clever. It does things to hide from the immune system, and to make the environment it’s infecting be the best possible environment for it to survive in.

And so, we take devils from the insurance population, they go to an island called Maria Island, and we mix the populations on the island. So the idea is, every time you have a mixing event, you’re creating more and more genetic diversity in the devils. And it’s those devils that we use for translocations. And then we pick a site on Tasmanian mainland, and we release the devils.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So, she went on to use genomics as a way to increase their genetic diversity. Maybe that would solve the disease problem.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: The very first release we did, we took 20 animals out of captivity, and we released them. And within the first five weeks, four of them were killed on the road by cars. The next release we did, we lost another very high percentage of devils to roadkill in the first six-week period. But it meant that we really needed to rethink how we were going to use that population for translocations. And that’s where we cottoned on to putting them on the island, and letting them breed up on the island, and then releasing them to mainland Tasmania.

So the island is a National Park. It’s 115 square kilometer island National Park of the east coast of Australia. It had never had a large-scale carnivore on it before. It had a colony of endangered penguins, and endangered shearwaters, on the island. And we put the carnivore on the island, and they ate the birds.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: No.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yes, they did.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Of course they did. That’s not their fault.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: We can’t make them vegan.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Exactly, exactly.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: It’s not how the world works.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: No, nor should we.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: And it’s like I have these visions that I’m going to cause the tumor to mutate so significantly, it’s going to kill the devils faster-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Oh, no.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: … and then I would’ve catastrophically made a species go extinct.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Just a quick note, there were some more of those birds on another island in case you were worried that that was the end of them. As for our Tasmanian devils, Carolyn started to finally see some successes.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Yeah, so we released devils in 2016 to a place called Stony Head. And yeah, the results are back. We are just processing them now, and we’ve been able to introduce new genetic variants at the immune genes. So we’ve made devils fitter, they’re able to sustain better parasite loads, they’ve got really good blood results. It doesn’t make them resistant to the disease, unfortunately. As much as I’d like to be able to breed resistance in, that doesn’t work that way. But it just means that the devils, if we can make them a little bit more immunologically robust, that their system will have a better chance of being able to fight against the cancer itself.

And if we can get them to live for two breeding seasons and hey, populations might bump up a little bit. And the best part about it is, we tripled the population size in five years, and the prevalence of disease hasn’t increased at all. It still sits around about 25%.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: By using genomics as a lens into the diversity of these little creatures, researchers can begin understanding how to give them a helpful boost in the wild. But, is doing so giving them an unfair advantage? Is our intervention giving animals like the Tasmanian devil, a devilish edge?

You’re listening to Nice Genes!, a podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics, and the evolving science behind it, brought to you by genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, and we want to get more people listening to the genomic stories that are shaping our world. So if you like Nice Genes!, hit Follow on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your shows. Help unleash a whirlwind of devilish creatures by telling a friend about us.

We left off with the work being done to save Tasmanian devils, but turning back and looking at the de- extinction research Dr. Axel Newton is working on-


Dr. Axel Newton: …everything, all the technology that we are looking to develop could actually have enormous benefits to helping the Tasmanian devil re- thrive.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: It may just help us in the fight for species in precarious situations.


Dr. Axel Newton: So this is a really interesting question. There’s this ethical and moral debate as to, you know, should we be doing this when we can focus on current conservation efforts?

The reality of the question is, well firstly it’s complex. But secondly, what we’re actually trying to achieve here, has enormous benefit to existing species. So, everything that we are trying to do and develop, will really have real world application to preserving threatened species as it is. But as I said, what we’re looking to achieve, is really being able to re- engineer diversity into populations, and that has enormous benefits for re- engineering diversity into threatened species such as the Tasmanian devil, and other species like that as well.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So can you take us from the start, how did the thylacine project begin?


Dr. Axel Newton: So the thylacine project began about 20 years ago by my supervisor Andrew Pask. And really, the first thing that really brought this into the limelight is he had this idea of whether we can take some thylacine DNA, and whether we can resurrect its function.

So what Andrew did, was he took a little thylacine gene, and he cloned it into a mouse, and then was able to show that the thylacine DNA drove expression of this gene. So, this is a gene that had been extinct for a hundred years, but it was still able to resurrect its function.

So this concept kicked off this whole idea. And then, the most important part and the next step in that, and this is where I’ve been involved, is we were really fortunate enough to sample some tissue from a preserved thylacine pouch young specimen, again about a hundred years old from Melbourne Museum. And we were able to sequence its genome. Now, the genome is the first step for any of these processes. We need to have a really good quality build of this genome, effectively its genetic blueprint. And now as we stand today, we have a really good, near chromosome level, assembly of this extinct thylacine, which is remarkable for an extinct species.

(inaudible) in this place.


Phoebe Melvin: So where are we now?


Dr. Axel Newton: Just behind the box. So here, we’re in the Biosciences for Animals facility that we have in the basement of building here. And in here, we have all of our research mammals, animals actually. We have mice, we have dunnarts. We’ve also got some carp and some cane toads for some other projects.

So today, I’m just going to show you some of our little research marsupials, our dunnarts. So these are little carnivores, they’re like mice, but they’ve got little sharp pointed teeth. They eat cat food.


Phoebe Melvin: Cat food?


Dr. Axel Newton: Cat food, yeah, that’s what they like…

One of the really cool things we found when we actually sequenced the thylacine genome, is we know only sequence the genome, but we did some really interesting analyses to look at its relationship amongst other marsupials.

Are you guys in the act? You look like it.


Phoebe Melvin: Do we need to put a PG-13 rating on this?


Dr. Axel Newton: Are they in the act?


Lab Manager: I think they were just having a cuddle.


Dr. Axel Newton: Just a cuddle?


Lab Manager: Yeah.


Phoebe Melvin: (inaudible) .


Dr. Axel Newton: And what we found was that the Tasmanian tiger actually shares a very similar genetic distance, so that is, it’s very similarly related to, the dunnarts, Tasmanian devils, quolls.


Phoebe Melvin: They’re so small.


Dr. Axel Newton: Yeah, they’re tiny…

But effectively, the findings were that it didn’t really matter which of these closely related animals we used, because they all were in the same ballpark. So, because the dunnart is small, it’s easy to keep in captivity, it’s easy to breed, it breeds all year round. There’s many benefits of using it as our surrogate model species, and we can’t do the Tasmanian devil, because it’s obviously got this really unfortunate facial tumor disease, and they’re quite a threatened population as it is.


Phoebe Melvin: Okay, so put them away?


Dr. Axel Newton: Yep. There our dunnarts.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: What else goes on in that latter stage? How do we move from dunnart, with thylacine there, to thylacine?


Dr. Axel Newton: Really simply the project is, Number One, sequence, the thylacine genome. So that’s a big tick. We’ve done that, and we’ve got it in a really good state.

Number Two, which in my opinion, is probably the most intense and challenging, is re- engineering that dunnart cell into a thylacine cell.

Number Three, is developing techniques where we can go and culture that cell through to an animal, to an embryo, and then through to birth.

And then Number [Four] is actually housing and growing that animal into a healthy adult. Now that number [four] actually, is probably one of the most simple that we can do, and that’s because marsupials have a really interesting mode of reproduction that isn’t really seen in other animals. And that is the fact that they’re born in a tiny, tiny little jelly bean- like state. They crawl into their mother’s pouch, and they do the rest of their development in the mother’s pouch.

Now, we think that thylacines probably only had a gestation of about two to three weeks. So, what it means for us then is, that once we have that thylacine cell, if we can turn that into an embryo, we only have to really artificially culture that for about three weeks, before that animal is born, and we can then go and put that in the pouch of another closely related species, or hand rear it, and stuff like that.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Is there any side stage where you get adorable little dunnart that also has stripes?


Dr. Axel Newton: That would be something that I think would be of interest to people if you could get little striped mice, or striped dunnarts. I think the really important, and I’m glad you asked that actually, because one of the most important things that needs to be mentioned, is through this endeavor, we are not interested in trying to make an almost thylacine.

This animal has to be a thylacine. It has to be a 99. 9% thylacine. We don’t want to make this weird hybrid animal. And I think that that’s where we get a lot of criticism from the public, is they’re saying, “Oh, you’re playing God and you’re going to be making things that aren’t natural.” I agree with that. And I don’t want to be making these weird hybrid abominations. We want to ensure that we have a 99% thylacine, and that’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of time, and rigor, but we will get there, eventually.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Why is the thylacine itself, important? What does it bring to the environment? What would we get by bringing it back?


Dr. Axel Newton: So, not only was the thylacine emblematic of Tasmania, because it was this truly unique animal, it was also a carnivore. And in its ecology, it was the hyper carnivore. It was the apex predator, it was the top of its food chain. So effectively, by removing an apex predator from an environment, you destabilize the food chain, you destabilize the ecosystem.

And a really good example of this is actually when the wolves were removed from Yellowstone National Park. And then there was this really interesting study recently where they reintroduced those, and they looked at the flow on effects of reintroducing that predator into the ecosystem, and it had enormous benefits. So, this is what we’re looking at here. We’re looking to restabilize an ecosystem by reintroducing its apex predator.

And again, going back to this idea of the dinosaurs, or something along those lines, that’s 65 million years ago where these ecosystems have dramatically changed throughout time. With the thylacine, we’re talking about a hundred years. We’re talking about a blip of time, and change in ecosystems. So, we believe that if you were to reintroduce that animal to that environment, everything is still pretty much exactly the same. It should just kick off where it left.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: It wouldn’t show up being like, “Oh, no.”


Dr. Axel Newton: Yeah, “What’s going on? What are all these things?”


Dr. Kaylee Byers: What’s going on here?


Dr. Axel Newton: Yeah, it would start to control some of the smaller herbivores, and pests, and things like that, that are getting out of control.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: From thylacines, wooly mammoths, and Christmas Island rats, scientists are getting to a point where the animals that were lost through history, might be able to make a reappearance.

Bringing all of this together, I want to ask, if we can bring these species back, does that mean we should be rewilding the habitats that have moved on without them? And if so, what are the consequences? Back to Dr. Hogg.

If we can bring species back that have been extinct for a long time, does that mean that we should set them free into their old habitats? We’ve got this process of translocation. What are those repercussions of bringing them to where they were before?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: De- extinction is a very hot topic these days. And I think one of the conversations that needs to happen in the de de- extinction discussion is the ethics of it. You have to be able to de- extinct a species, and have it with enough genetic variability, that when you release it, has enough adaptive potential to be able to live in the environment in which you release it to.

And we can’t actually do that successfully at the moment with species that haven’t gone extinct. So, that’s something just to keep in the back of your mind. And a lot of people will say to me, “Oh, how do you feel about the thoughts of de- extinction, and whether or not I think it should happen?” I think what people need to realize is that they made a commitment to have a living settlement on Mars. They made that commitment back in the 1980s, and it was a massive dream. And I think they wanted to do it by like 2030, I can’t remember the exact dates.  But, in the process of shooting for that massive ambition of putting human settlement on Mars, they developed the International Space Station. And with that, all the downstream, phenomenal amount of computer technology, carbon fiber, there’s just so many benefits that humanity has got from that investment in that kind of space race. And the de- extinction race to me, is the same kind of race.

Whether or not we get to de- extinct a species, to me is irrelevant. But in the process of pursuing de- extinction, we will generate a massive amount of new technology and new methodologies and a greater understanding of species biology, that we actually know we need to protect the species we still have.

Think about what we were able to do and what we could achieve, if we had that kind of knowledge for everything. If you want to reach the moon, you have to shoot for the stars.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Carolyn, something that has been a through point, this whole episode, is biodiversity. We were just talking about how important it is to preserve what we already have. And then on the other side, we have this idea of bringing species back. And this is a real basic question, but why does biodiversity matter?


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: So I guess what people need to realize, is when we talk about biodiversity, we are talking about all living things on the planet, and that includes humans. And there’s three pillars that underpin biodiversity.

There’s diversity in ecosystems, diversity of species. I think you learn in about year four science class, that monoculture and agriculture is a seriously bad idea because your productivity goes through the floor. And the last pillar has been diversity of genes and genetic diversity.

And so, for the last 50 years, diversity of ecosystems and diversity of species has been really well studied and understood by ecologists. But it wasn’t until the human genome and the rapid development of genomic technology in the last decade particularly, that’s really opened up our understanding of genetic diversity.

What we now know is that answers and solutions for climate change come from having biodiversity. But more importantly, our food security is dependent on biodiversity. And then the other thing as well is, we haven’t really developed any new antibiotic drugs in the last 50 years. And it’s now estimated that 10 million people a year will die in 2050 from antibiotic resistant bacteria.

And so, if you don’t even believe in nature and having a forest out there to walk into, if you just believe in being able to feed yourself and have medicines, that is why we need biodiversity, because without it, our ability to survive, is now dependent on what we do to this planet.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Well, Dr. Carolyn Hogg, thank you so much for taking the time to come on and talk about conservation genetics.


Dr. Carolyn Hogg: No, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real delight, and hopefully everyone understands a little bit more about our weird and wonderful critters we have down here in Australia.


Singer: (Singing.)


Dr. Kaylee Byers: It may be a while yet before Dr. Axel Newton unveils a living and breathing Tasmanian tiger. But it’s clear the work he’s doing might help folks like Dr. Carolyn Hogg with protecting this planet and the creatures scurrying across it.

My guests for today have been Dr. Axel Newton, Research Fellow for comparative genomics at the Thylacine Integrated Genomics Restoration Research [TIGRR] Lab, and at the Andrew Pask Lab, and Dr. Carolyn Hogg, Senior Research Manager of the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group at the University of Sydney.

You’ve been listening to Nice Genes!, a podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. If you like this episode, go check out some of our previous ones, wherever you listen from. Share us with your sciencey friends. You can also get in touch by DMing the show on Twitter by going to @genomebc. We also have some learn-a-long activity sheets added to the show description. Join us next time, when we immerse our ears into the watery depths to find one lonely whale.


Joshua Zeman: And all these people will be like, “What? There’s one whale out in the ocean and it’s swimming about, and it’s never received a response?” And I’m like, “Yeah, is that a good story?” And they would be like, “Is that a good story? Oh my God, I want to go find this whale.” People will be like, “I’m crying.”


Dr. Kaylee Byers: If you’ve got a moment, we’d love it if you’d give the devils a heavenly review of our show, wherever you’re listening from. I’ll be thylacining you later.


Singer: ( Singing.)



Calls from the Deep



400–575 West 8th Avenue
Vancouver, BC V5Z 0C4 Canada

Host: Kaylee Byers
Creative Director: Jen Moss
Strategy: Roger Nairn
Producer: Sean Holden
Content Creator: Phoebe Melvin
Audio Engineer: Patrick Emile
Cover Art Designer: Amanda Di Genova

Genome BC respectfully acknowledges that our office space is located on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nations, the traditional custodians of these lands.

© 2000–2022 Genome British Columbia All rights reserved. | Terms of Use | Privacy