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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Donna Lu

US firm behind Tasmanian tiger ‘de-extinction’ plan uses influencers to promote research

Colourised picture of the last-known surviving Tasmanian tiger from footage taken in 1933.
Colourised picture of the last-known surviving Tasmanian tiger from footage taken in 1933. The resurrection effort is a collaboration between Colossal Biosciences and the University of Melbourne Photograph: The National Film and Sound Arch/AFP/Getty Images

The US firm behind the effort to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger has taken the unusual step of engaging social media influencers to promote its research.

The announcement last week that Australian and US scientists had launched a multimillion-dollar project to bring back the thylacine received wide coverage.

The resurrection effort is a collaboration between Colossal Biosciences, a Texas-based biotechnology firm specialising in “de-extinction”, and researchers at the University of Melbourne.

The ambitious project, which has seen a mixed response from the scientific community, seeks to reintroduce the carnivorous marsupial to its native Tasmania, where it died out in the 1930s.

Several influencers have produced promotional content for Colossal on Instagram and TikTok, using the hashtag #ColossalPartner.

Among them is Kendall Long in the US, a self-described “curiosity lover” and science enthusiast and former contestant on The Bachelor; and Laura Wells, an Australian presenter.

Nick Uhas, an American TV host with more than 7 million followers on TikTok, has previously promoted the firm’s plan to revive the woolly mammoth and reintroduce the animal to the Arctic tundra.

Prof Kristofer Helgen, the Australian Museum’s chief scientist, said he was aware influencers were promoting the de-extinction project via Twitter and other online platforms.

Helgen is convinced, based on the molecular biology of thylacines, that the de-extinction project is not feasible. “I don’t think that it is possible to recreate a thylacine in the way that has been described. I feel very strongly that the underlying science is not there,” he said.

“Some caution is warranted. You’d want some peer review and some expertise involved in vetting the kind of story that’s being told about what the scientists are planning to do,” Helgen said.

“Instead … we’re seeing a very different corporate approach, which is asking social influencers – who may not know too much about marsupial biology, for example, but have large followings or science-oriented followings – to pump out media that’s positive,” he said. “This company stands to make money from the publicity.”

Dr Belinda Barnet, a senior lecturer in media at Swinburne University, said: “Although many brands employ the use of influencers now, mainly because they are effective at getting attention and media coverage, this is not common practice in research.

“A research project is not meant to be a brand. You’re not trying to sell something. So the fact that this has happened should tell us something about research culture, and about how competitive funding has become,” she said.

“I can see why Colossal Biosciences might try it; perhaps a media profile will attract more investment.”

Among Colossal’s investors are the Hemsworth brothers, Paris Hilton, the management firm founded by the Winklevoss twins, and Thomas Tull, the former chief executive of Legendary Entertainment.

“We actively engage in efforts to help educate the public and reach younger generations in their social media platforms of choice,” said Colossal’s chief executive, Ben Lamm, in a statement. “Everyone is competing for audience attention. Funding this education on next-gen social channels is critical to reach younger audiences. It is not about getting support from influencers but in actually getting the message out.”

Paying influencers to promote science is unusual but not unheard of. Last year, the UK Institute of Physics spent “tens of thousands of pounds” on a social media campaign on TikTok.

Five TikTokers were paid to stand on boxes of eggs without breaking them, with the aim to “reach more young people with positive messages about physics”, the IOP’s Ray Mitchell told Nature in March.

Prof Andrew Pask at the University of Melbourne, whose laboratory is collaborating on the thylacine project, was unavailable for comment.

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