A ‘De-Extinction’ Company Wants to Bring Back the Dodo

A 'De-Extinction' Company Wants to Bring Back the Dodo

Colossal Biosciences, the headline-grabbing, venture-capital-funded juggernaut of de-extinction science, announced plans on January 31 to bring back the dodo. Whether “bringing back” a semblance of the extinct flightless bird is feasible is a matter of debate.

Founded in 2021 by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard University geneticist George Church, the company first said it would re-create the mammoth. And a year later it announced such an effort for the thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger. Now, with the launch of a new Avian Genomics Group and a reported $150 million of additional investment, the long-gone dodo joins the lineup.

In the world of extinct animals, the dodo carries some heavy symbolic weight. Native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, it went extinct in the mid- to late 17th century, after humans arrived on the island. The ungainly bird, which stood around one meter tall and weighed about 15 to 20 kilograms, represents a particular kind of evolutionary misfortune: It should have been afraid of humans, but it wasn’t. The birds blithely walked up to sailors, so received history goes, and didn’t flinch as their peers were killed around them. The dodoes, which reproduced by laying a single egg on the ground, were also predated by other species, such as monkeys and rats, which humans brought with them. Now the creature represents extinction itself—you can’t get deader than a dodo.

“This announcement is really just the start of this project,” says Beth Shapiro, lead paleogeneticist and a scientific advisory board member at Colossal Biosciences. Shapiro, also a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has studied the dodo since the science of paleogenetics was in its infancy. In 2002 she published research in Science describing how her team had extracted a tiny piece of the bird’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)—the DNA inside little organelles called mitochondria that gets passed down from mother to offspring. That snippet of mtDNA showed the dodo’s closest living relative was the Nicobar pigeon. Then, in 2022, Shapiro announced that her team at U.C. Santa Cruz had reconstructed the dodo’s entire genome.

Though the journey from mtDNA to genome took decades, the path from genome to a living, breathing animal is even more formidable, involving an enormous, interacting set of extraordinarily complex problems. Technically, a species could be resurrected by cloning DNA from a…

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