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11.12.2017 17:00

Extinct but not lost: Reconstructed genome of the Tasmanian tiger

Dr. Thomas Bauer Presse- und Informationsstelle
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

    A genome consortium led by Prof. Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne was able to extract and reconstruct the entire thylacine genome. Consortium members Dr. Liliya Doronina and Dr. Jürgen Schmitz from the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster reconstructed the phylogenetic history of thylacine.

    A century ago, the largest recent carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian tiger, also called thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), made its nocturnal forays through its last refuge, the southern Australian island of Tasmania. One hundred twenty thousand years ago the Tasmanian tiger, so named for the stripes on its lower back, was widespread over all of Australia and also endemic in New Guinea. Unfortunately, the last known thylacine died in 1936 in the Tasmanian Hobart zoo, a historic year in which the species finally received legal protection under Tasmanian law – fifty-nine days before its extinction. From time to time, sighting reports still make headlines and raise hope of survivors, but as of yet no desired revival has been confirmed.

    The marsupial thylacine is a classic example of morphological convergent evolution with dog-related placental mammals (wolfs, dogs, foxes). These two unrelated mammalian groups have very similar cranial and body shapes that cannot be explained by a common evolutionary origin, but rather that developed in thylacines and dogs independently and are associated with carnivorous feeding ecology. The true thylacine relatives are members of the marsupial order Dasyuromorphia, including carnivorous Tasmanian devils, quolls, bushy-tailed marsupial rats, and insectivorous numbats. However, the phylogenetic position of thylacine within Dasyuromorphia is still one of the many secrets the species took with it into extinction.

    An intense search for suitable genetic material to examine the evolution and to learn more about the largest modern carnivorous marsupial was recently successful. A genome consortium led by Prof. Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne obtained a 108-year-old ethanol-preserved pouch-young specimen from the Museums Victoria collection in Melbourne, and was able to extract and reconstruct the entire thylacine genome in surprisingly high quality. This genome of the extinct thylacine enabled them to retrospectively explore the phylogenetic position, the demographic history, and the molecular effects of adaptive changes of this textbook example of convergent evolution.

    Genome consortium members Dr. Liliya Doronina and Dr. Jürgen Schmitz from the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster reconstructed the phylogenetic history of thylacine via a genome-wide extraction of its retroposed elements or jumping genes. Comparative analyses of the insertion patterns of these elements in the thylacine genome and in other dasyuromorphian species pinpointed the thylacine as the first divergence in the Dasyuromorphia tree. The results of this unique study: “Genome of the Tasmanian Tiger Provides Insights into the Evolution and Demography of an Extinct Marsupial Carnivore” by Charles Y. Feigin, Axel H. Newton, Liliya Doronina, Jürgen Schmitz, Christy A. Hipsley, Kieren J. Mitchell, Graham Gower, Bastien Llamas, Julien Soubrier, Thomas N. Heider, Brandon R. Menzies, Alan Cooper, Rachel J. O’Neill & Andrew J. Pask, were just published online in the new journal Nature Ecology and Evolution (doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0417-y).


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    Liliya Doronina and Jürgen Schmitz from the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster


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    The Tasmanian tiger


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