FILE – A rare fragment of a dodo’s femur is displayed next to an image of a member of the extinct species at a Christie’s auction house in London on March 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The dodo bird won’t be back anytime soon. Neither did the woolly mammoth. But a company working on technologies to bring back extinct species has attracted more investors, while other scientists have expressed skepticism that such a feat is possible or even a good idea.
Colossal Biosciences first announced its ambitious plan to bring back the woolly mammoth two years ago, and on Tuesday said it wanted to do the same for the dodo.
“The dodo is a symbol of human-caused extinction,” said Ben Lamm, serial entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of Colossal. The company has created a division to focus on bird-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-based company, which was created in 2021, also announced Tuesday that it had raised $150 million in additional funding. To date, he has raised $225 million from a wide variety of investors including America’s Technology Innovation Fund, Breyer Capital and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm that invests in technology.
The possibility of bringing back the dodo is not expected to generate money directly, Lamm said. But the genetic tools and equipment the company develops to try to do that could have other uses, such as for human health care, he added.
For example, Colossal is currently testing tools to modify various parts of the genome simultaneously. He is also working on technologies for what is sometimes known as an “artificial womb,” she said.
The Nicobar pigeon is the dodo’s closest living relative, said Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist on Colossal’s scientific advisory committee, who has studied the dodo for two decades. Shapiro works for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press Department of Science and Health.
His team plans to study the DNA differences between the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo to understand “what are the genes that make the dodo a dodo,” he said.
Later, the team could try to edit the cells of the Nicobar pigeon so that they resemble those of the dodo. It might be possible to put the modified cells into the developing eggs of other birds, such as pigeons or chickens, to create a hatchling that can naturally produce dodo eggs, Shapiro explained. The concept is still in the early stages of a theoretical phase for dodos.
Because animals are a product of both their genetics and their environment, which has changed drastically since the 1600s, Shapiro commented that “it is not possible to recreate a 100% identical copy of something that no longer exists.”
Other scientists wonder if it’s even advisable to try, and question whether “de-extinction” diverts attention and money from efforts to save species that remain on Earth.
“There is a real risk in saying that if we destroy nature, we can just bring it back, because we can’t,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who is not affiliated with Colossal.
“And where would you put a woolly mammoth if not in a cage?” Primm asked, noting that the ecosystems where mammoths lived were long gone.
On a practical level, conservation biologists familiar with captive breeding programs said it can be difficult for zoo-raised animals to adapt to the wild.
It helps if they learn from other wild members of their species, an advantage that dodos and mammoths would not have, said Boris Worm, a biologist at Dalhouse University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who is not related to Colossal.
“Preventing species from going extinct should be our priority in the first place, and in most cases it’s much cheaper,” Worm said.
The Associated Press Department of Science and Health receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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