The dodo bird was big, flightless, and pretty good eating. All that helps explain why it went extinct around 1662, just 150 years after European sailing ships found Mauritius, the island in the Indian Ocean where the bird once lived.
Now a US biotechnology company says it plans to bring the dodo back into existence.
It’s the third species picked by Colossal Biosciences, of Austin, Texas, for what it calls a process of technological “de-extinction.” It’s also working on using large-scale genome engineering to morph modern elephants back into wooly mammoths, and resurrect the Tasmanian tiger.
In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Ben Lamm, Colossal’s CEO, described a startup whose sizable scientific staff (including 41 PhD scientists), substantial funding, and eye-grabbing projects could have “far reaching” consequences for animal conservation and human health.
That’s because reviving any lost species requires technology straight out of Jurassic Park—including sequencing of ancient DNA, cloning, and even artificial wombs. The two-year-old startup also said today it had raised a further $150 million in funding (bringing the total it’s raised to $225 million)—some of which will fund a new effort around bird genomics.
The resurrection of the dodo is a theoretical possibility thanks to Beth Shapiro, a specialist in ancient DNA at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who says that she and co-workers were able to recover detailed DNA information from 500-year-old dodo remains held at a museum in Denmark.
“I have the dodo genome,” Shapiro, who is now advising Colossal, said in a phone interview with MIT Technology Review. “That is something we just finished.”
To create a dodo from such genetic information, the company’s plan is to try to modify the bird’s closest living relative, the brightly colored nicobar pigeon, turning it step-by-step into a dodo, and possibly “re-wilding” the animal back into its native habitat.
Colossal has not yet created any kind of animal. It’s still working on developing the necessary processes. And making a dodo might not even be possible. That’s because it is hard to predict how many DNA changes will be needed to transform the nicobar pigeon into a big-beaked, three-foot tall dodo.
“That is one of the big questions. At what point is your editing done?” says Mike McGrew, an avian biologist at the Roslin Institute, in Edinburgh, who is a paid adviser to Colossal. “Is it hitting a hundred genes or one thousand genes?”
Even if Colossal can make what it terms “a functional proxy for the dodo,” there won’t be a clear answer about where to put it. The big agricultural industry in Mauritius is sugar cane farming, and there are plenty of rats and other non-native predators around. “It would not really be a dodo, it would be a new species. But it still needs an environment,” says Jennifer Li Pook Than, a gene sequencing specialist at Stanford University whose parents were born on the island. “What would that mean ethically, if one is not available?”
Lamm isn’t offering a firm time frame for producing a dodo. He predicted the mammoth could arrive before 2029, and that the dodo could come sooner or later than that, depending on scientific factors.
Another organization, the non-profit Revive & Restore, has worked for a decade towards bringing back the passenger pigeon, a bird that once dominated American skies. But it has confronted a major technical difficulty that will also affect the dodo project.
The problem is that while it is easy to gene-edit bird cells in the lab, it’s hard to turn carefully edited cells back into a bird. For mammals, such as cattle or elephants, the answer is easy: cloning. But cloning into a bird egg doesn’t work—it’s a huge cell and its nucleus is opaque yolk. “You would have to take it out and implant another nucleus, and it’s impossible to do,” says McGrew.
McGrew believes the likely solution is to inject genetically-edited cells into the gonads of a developing pigeon chick. That way, some of those cells will end up forming the new bird’s egg or sperm. If that bird then reproduces, its offspring will be related to the donor cells (and will include any DNA changes). This technology already works, McGrew says, but so far only in chickens.
“They have to be able to transfer this technology to a pigeon,” says McGrew. “We thought that what worked for chickens would apply to other species, but it turns out to be difficult.”
These types of obstacles are why some scientists doubt de-extinction will work, and Shapiro herself has been among the skeptics, expressing doubts about the idea in interviews last year.
However, the geneticist says she’s changed her mind and now views de-extinction as a useful form of scientific public relations. “At first, I was really like, ‘I don’t know about this technology,’” Shapiro says. “But gradually I’ve come to think this is the future. We need to develop these tools and additional approaches to be able to protect species today from becoming extinct. And if we’re going to excite people enough to do that, we’re going to have to throw something big out there, and everybody’s heard of the dodo.”
Several hundred bird species are currently considered endangered. Gene-editing and assisted reproduction could help to save them, or at least preserve them in zoos.
Because there isn’t much money to be made in conservation, how Colossal will ever turn a profit is another work in progress. One Colossal executive told MIT Technology Review that the company could sell tickets to see its animals and Lamm believes the technologies needed to create the mammoth or the dodo will have other commercial uses. Last fall, Colossal spun out a bioinformatics company, Form Bio, which is selling software to manage lab results (it’s also being used to study the dodo genome).
“I think it’s highly likely that you will see a couple more technology spinouts,” Lamm says.
Any advances the company achieves in gene-editing, in particular, could find substantial markets. Colossal’s investors include the billionaire Thomas Tull, the CIA’s venture capital arm, and the prominent biotech venture capitalist Robert Nelsen. In an email, Nelsen said he invested in the company because de-extinction “is just really cool. Mammoths and direwolves are cool.”