Resurrect an extinct species of rat using DNA editing? They try


  • Scientists have recreated the genome of the Christmas Island rat, which died out more than 100 years ago.
  • But about 5% of the rat’s genetic makeup could not be recreated, meaning if the animal was brought back to life it would be different.
  • Gene splicing technology could be used to replace what is missing, but the result might not be an exact copy of its older predecessor.

Last year, we learned that scientists wanted to bring back the woolly mammoth. Now researchers are aiming to resurrect something much smaller: the Christmas Island rat, a rodent that was about 10 inches long, not including its 7-inch tail.

To test the viability of improved genetic splicing technology, the researchers focused on the Christmas Island rat. The coarse-haired creature died out more than 100 years ago on this Indian Ocean island, scientists believe because of diseases brought by European ships.

But the Christmas Island rat has an evolutionary descendant close to the Norway rat. This larger rat, which can weigh over a pound and measure 16 inches long, is the species that dwells in our sewers and has become a common research subject in the laboratory.

Using gene-editing technology, the researchers attempted to recreate the genome of the Christmas Island rat and found that the two rats shared about 95% of the same genetic material. But they also discovered that about 5% of its original genes could not be recovered, they reported Wednesday in Current Biology, the peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“They evolved to be so different, we can’t recover the sequence,” said Tom Gilbert, one of the study’s co-authors and director of the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

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So don’t start feeling like booking your Jurassic Park tickets just yet. Without a fully accurate genome, scientists cannot predict what might be brought to life.

The researchers will want to do similar experiments to get closer to getting close to a replica of the extinct animal they will create, Gilbert said in an email interview.

“And then you can decide if you’re happy with that as an end goal. You may be…or you may feel like it’s not quite what you wanted,” he said. “But the fact is that this analysis is not difficult to do and can be very informative.”

What it takes to resuscitate a rat

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Shantou University in China used DNA from two dried skins of Christmas Island rats to sequence its genome and compare it to the modern Norway rat. By comparing the two, the researchers found that some of the Christmas Island rat’s missing genes related to its ability to smell.

Thus, a reborn rat from Christmas Island might “lack attributes likely essential for survival in its natural or nature-like environment,” they write in the report.

However, using CRISPR gene-editing technology, the rat to be brought back could be a hybrid animal comprising Norway rat immunity genes, which “may even have potential advantages”, they wrote.

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But first, Gilbert plans to try to edit the genome of a black rat into a Norway rat, he said in a description of the research on the university’s website. “It’s a fascinating idea in technology, but you have to wonder if it’s the best use of the money rather than keeping things alive that are still there,” he said. .

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Ross MacPhee, senior curator at the American Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study, wondered if gene-editing technology might not be better spent helping current species such as the California condor in endangered,” he told NBC News.

“There are situations where you would very much like a species to do better, but we also have to recognize that it is what people have done to the environment that has limited the possibilities for these species to have a decent life. “said MacPhee. .

Colossal Laboratories, the company behind the effort to use elephant DNA to bring back mammoths, is undeterred. Gene sequencing technology for ancient and modern DNA is “steadily improving,” Harvard Medical School biologist and Colossal co-founder George Church told Science.

Colossal is working on transferring genes from mammoths that allow them to tolerate cold into modern elephants. “The main goal is not to make ‘perfect photocopies,’ but to make diverse and selective hybrids,” Church said.

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.

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