WASHINGTON (AP) — The dodo isn’t coming back anytime soon. Not even a woolly mammoth. But companies working on technologies to bring extinct species back to life have attracted more investors, and other scientists are skeptical that such a feat is possible or a good idea.
Colossal Biosciences first announced an ambitious plan to bring back the woolly mammoth two years ago, and on Tuesday said it wants to bring back the dodo as well.
“The dodo is a man-made symbol of extinction,” said Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Colossal. The company has formed a division to focus on avian-related genetic technologies.
The last dodo, a flightless bird the size of a turkey, died in 1681 on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
The Dallas company, launched in 2021, also announced on Tuesday that it had raised an additional $150 million in funding. To date, it has raised $225 million from a wide range of investors, including the US Fund for Innovation and Technology, Breyer Capital, and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm that invests in technology.
Bringing Dodo back to life isn’t expected to directly make money, Lamm said. But the genetic tools and equipment the company has developed to try it could have other uses, including human health care, he said.
Colossal, for example, is currently testing tools that modify multiple parts of the genome simultaneously. They are also working on technology for what is sometimes called an “artificial womb,” he said.
The Dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, said Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist on Colossal’s scientific advisory board. He has been studying dodo for 20 years. Shapiro earns a salary from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which supports the Associated Press’ health and science divisions.
Her team plans to study DNA differences between Nicobar pigeons and dodos to understand “what genes actually make a dodo a dodo,” she said.
The team could then try to edit the Nicobar pigeon cells to make them resemble dodo cells. Shapiro said it might be possible to insert the modified cells into the developing eggs of other birds, such as pigeons or chickens, to create offspring capable of producing dodo eggs naturally. This concept is still in its early theoretical stages for dodos.
Because animals are the product of genetics and environments that have changed dramatically since the 1600s, Shapiro said, “It’s impossible to recreate a copy that is 100% identical to what has disappeared.”
Other scientists question whether “extinction restoration” can divert attention and money away from efforts to save species that still remain on Earth.
“It’s really dangerous to say that even if we destroy nature, we can put it back together, because we can’t,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who has nothing to do with Colossal.
“Then where else on earth would you put a woolly mammoth other than in a cage?” I asked Pym, noting that the mammoth ecosystem had long since disappeared.
On a practical level, conservation biologists familiar with captive breeding programs say that acclimatizing animals in captivity to the wild can be tricky.
Boris Worm, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who is not related to the Colossal, says it helps if they can learn from other wildlife of their species, a potential advantage that dodos and mammoths may not have.
“Preventing species from extinction should be our priority, and in most cases, it’s far less expensive,” Worm said.
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