- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Most D.C. party chat tends to be fairly idle, but that certainly wasn't the case at the Australian Embassy Monday night, when talk turned to top-notch science topics, extinct species and the ethics of cloning. The educational interlude came with the introduction of a joint documentary produced by the Discovery Channel and the TLC Network, "The End of Extinction: Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger." It's set to air locally tomorrow.

"In some ways, this is as important as the first walk on the moon," said Maurice Paleau, executive producer of the program and vice president for development and production at Discovery. "This is very much on the cutting edge of science."

Mr. Paleau may not look familiar, but some of his previous projects should ring a bell. He has been behind previous successful Discovery programs, including "Raising the Mammoth" and "Cleopatra's Palace."

The Tasmanian tiger (also known as the Tasmanian wolf or Thylacinus cynocephalus) is a marsupial that looks like a cross between a large dog and a wolf and has a distinctive striped backside. The last known tiger died in captivity in 1936, after the species had been hunted heavily in Tasmania.

In 1999, DNA was lifted from a tiger preserved in ethanol, and individual genes were replicated successfully in May of this year.

This means that a tiger conceivably could be cloned within two years to a decade from now, Mr. Paleau said, adding that controversy already surrounds the project.

"If you clone an extinct species, what do you do with it?" he asked rhetorically before pointing out that the tiger is "a very recent extinction, with some of its natural habitat still existing."

The ideal situation, he said, would be to eventually reintroduce the species to the wild.

"I'm not big on cosmic morality, believing it to be very much a personal and subjective matter," noted Mike Archer, director of the Australian Museum and head of the cloning project, in press materials. "To bring it back, if we can, would be to me a moral imperative aimed at undoing that black act [of extinction]."

An advance screening of the documentary, for employees of both companies and friends of the embassy, ended with a question-and-answer period and a reception that featured a brand of Australian beer with the tiger on its label.

"I think it's a fascinating project," Australian Ambassador Michael Thawley said. "I thought it brought out all of the sides of the issue."

The Australian government's official position?

"As far as I know, there is no official stance on the project," he said at the end of what definitely was an atypical night on Embassy Row.

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