Recently, Colossal Biosciences – a biotech company based in Dallas – has announced a bold effort to bring back from extinction the famous dodo bird, a flightless bird that vanished from the Island of Mauritius in the late 17th century and became emblematic of humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world. Although the company received $225 million in investments to “resurrect” the dodo, its plans depend on major advances in genome editing, stem-cell biology, and animal husbandry, thus making the success of their endeavor far from certain.
“It’s incredibly exciting that there’s that kind of money available,” said Thomas Jensen, a cell and molecular reproductive physiologist at the Wells College. “I’m not sure that the end goal they’re going for is something that’s super feasible in the near future.”
Colossal’s plan is to begin with the dodo’s closest living relative – the iridescent-feathered Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) – and to isolate and culture specialized primordial germ cells (PGCs), which make sperm and egg-producing cells, from developing Nicobars. Afterwards, they aim to edit DNA sequences in the PGCs to match those of dodos by using state-of-the-art gene-editing tools such as CRISPR. These edited cells would then be inserted into embryos from a surrogate species to generate “chimeric animals” with DNA from both species, which could ultimately produce something resembling a dodo.
However, according to various experts, this plan faces several challenges. First, in order to edit Nicobar pigeon PGCs, the scientists will initially need to identify the conditions which allow these cells to flourish in the laboratory. Although this has already been done with chickens, it may take some time to repeat this process in the case of other bird species. Moreover, according to Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who recently sequenced the dodo genome, an even greater challenge will be to determine the genetic changes which could transform Nicobar pigeons into dodos. In addition, it could be problematic to find a bird large enough that can act as the surrogate, since dodo bird eggs are much larger than Nicobar pigeon eggs.
Finally, even if the dodo will ultimately be resurrected, the predators that threatened it in the 17th century have not gone away, whereas most of dodo’s habitat has. “You do have to ask, if we could have such money, wouldn’t it be better spent on restoring habitat on Mauritius and preventing species from going extinct?” said Vikash Tatayah, the conservation director at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in Vacoas-Phoenix.
Nevertheless, Tatayah – as well as other scientists – are enthusiastic about the attention dodo de-extinction could bring to conservation. “It’s something we would like to embrace,” he concluded.
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