Billion-dollar startup Colossal Biosciences claims it has come to a step closer to reviving the dodo, a flightless bird that has been extinct since the 17th century. The futuristic plan is only possible now that the Dallas-based company has decrypted the dodo’s entire genome, according to a press release.
The bird is the latest in a collection of long-gone animals that scientists want to bring back to life. The startup has previously said it plans to recreate the Tasmanian wolf and the woolly mammoth. There’s still a lot to be done before these birds can be brought back. Scientists can’t recreate life from scratch, so they will have to figure out a way to put the dodo-specific genes into the embryo of a living animal.
That in itself is no small task. The next step is comparing that genetic information to the genes of closely-related birds such as the Nicobar pigeon, and the Rodrigues solitaire, an extinct giant flightless pigeon, to figure out the mutations that “make a dodo a dodo,” Beth Shapiro, a lead geneticist on the project, told CNN. Shapiro says the ultimate plan would be to reintroduce the birds into Mauritius, where they lived before they were wiped out by humans. A bird created using such an approach would be a hybrid that resembles its ancestor.
The plan is “very, very challenging,” Ewan Birney, deputy director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, who is not involved in the project, told The Guardian. Still, the company has raised another US$150 million for the project, for a total of $225 million since 2021. According to Bloomberg, the latest investment values the startup at $1.5 billion.
There are obvious ethical questions when thinking about creating a species with the goal of releasing it into the wild, Birney said. “There are people who think that because you can do something, you should, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves, and whether this is really the best allocation of resources,” Birney told The Guardian. We should be saving the species that we have before they go extinct.” Colossal Biosciences claims bringing back these animals isn’t its only goal.
These grand schemes also serve as a moonshot for conservation research and the hope is that useful tools can be discovered along the way to help animals survive the current biodiversity crisis, it said.
“We’re clearly in the middle of an extinction crisis. And it’s our responsibility to bring stories and to bring excitement to people in a way that motivates them to think about the extinction crisis that’s going on right now,” Shapiro told CNN.
“I particularly look forward to furthering genetic rescue tools focused on birds and avian conservation,” she said.