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Can the dodo bird be brought back from extinction?

The entire genome of a dodo – a three-feet tall flightless bird that became extinct in the 17th century – has been sequenced for the first time by a team of scientists led by the University of California, Santa Cruz. This accomplishment raises hopes that the bird could be soon brought back to life through genetical engineering.

The dodo was discovered in the 16th century on the island of Mauritius. It weighed about 50 pounds (23 kilograms), had a blue-gray plumage, a huge head, stout yellow legs, and small useless wings.

Since it lived in isolation on Mauritius for hundreds of years, the dodo bird seemed to be fearless. Its audacity though, combined with an inability to fly, made it easy prey not only for humans, but also for the cats, dogs, and pigs that they brought with them while exploring the Indian Ocean. Thus, only 64 years after Dutch sailors had first spotted it, the dodo unfortunately became extinct.

Scientists from UC Santa Cruz used DNA from a dodo specimen kept in the Natural History Museum of Denmark and managed to sequence this bird’s entire genome for the first time (the sequencing has not been published yet). However, according to study leader Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist at UC Santa Cruz, it will most likely be very difficult to bring the dodo back to life.

“Mammals are simpler,” Professor Shapiro said. “If I have a cell and it’s living in a dish in the lab and I edit it so that it has a bit of dodo DNA, how do I then transform that cell into a whole living, breathing, actual animal? The way we can do this is to clone it, the same approach that was used to create Dolly the Sheep, but we don’t know how to do that with birds because of the intricacies of their reproductive pathways.”

“So there needs to be another approach for birds and this is one really fundamental technological hurdle in de-extinction. There are groups working on different approaches for doing that and I have little doubt that we are going to get there but it is an additional hurdle for birds that we don’t have for mammals.”

According to Mike Benton, a professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol, in order to bring this bird back from extinction, scientists will most likely edit Nicobar pigeon DNA to include dodo DNA, since the two species are very closely related genetically. However, the result may not completely resemble what the flightless bird originally looked like, warned Professor Benton.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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