The extinction of species has occurred throughout the planet’s history, but because of human activity, the process has started to occur at a faster rate. Enter biotech startup Colossal, which aims to do the impossible and bring species back to life with de-extinction methods, including the flightless dodo bird.
When it first appeared, Colossal made a bold entrance with its headline-grabbing announcement of plans to tackle the seemingly impossible task of creating a woolly mammoth. Since then, the company has shifted its focus to a more feasible project involving the thylacine, a marsupial predator that went extinct in the early 1900s.
There is no real demand for any of this, at least not commercially. Despite that, Colossal is determined, adding the challenging project of bringing back the extinct dodo bird. It is the start of the company’s return to the realm of complicated reproductive biology and all the hurdles it entails.
Why the Dodo?
The dodo has become a symbol of preventable tragedy caused by human thoughtlessness, becoming extinct in the 17th century due to human hunting and the introduction of invasive species. That makes it a prime candidate for a de-extinction project since it will draw attention to the impact of human actions on the environment.
However, de-extinction goes beyond bringing the species back. It also involves revitalizing the ecosystem. The process will entail the following:
- Removing all invasive species
- Creating a habitat that supports other endemic flora and fauna
- Bringing back the dodo bird
“If [dodos] are to be able to reestablish thriving populations on Mauritius, it’s going to require removing many of the invasive species that were introduced there. And in that way, this project will help to reinvigorate and revive these ecosystems,” said Beth Shapiro, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is also involved in a separate project to de-extinct the passenger pigeon.
The de-extinction of the dodo presents a new challenge in the field of biology partly because it is a bird, which requires different techniques than those used in the cloning and gene editing of mammals.
The techniques used in birds, which have only been used in the domestic chicken, involve manipulating primordial germ cells (PGCs) that give rise to eggs and sperm. However, there are unknown challenges that will need to be dealt with, including:
- The feasibility of the techniques in species beyond chickens
- The compatibility of PGCs from one species to another
- Size mismatches between eggs and developing embryos
The success of the dodo de-extinction project may face obstacles before even trying to engineer dodo-like DNA sequences into its closest living relatives, the Nicobar pigeon.
Is De-Extinction Worth It?
The restoration of ecosystems is a major milestone, but it can also have significant importance when it comes to things like climate change. When Colossal set out to bring back the woolly mammoth, there was talk of the action restoring tundra, balancing greenhouse gases, and combating climate change.
The dodo bird has its own role in ecosystem restoration, a primary interest of Colossal. When speaking to Ars, Colossal’s Ben Lamm said, “We’re losing a lot of birds, which are really, really critical to ecosystems, and there’s just not enough money going into it.” He continued, “We could start working on the dodo while further developing some of these underdeveloped and underfunded technologies around bird conservation.”