The race to resurrect the dodo
Apr 11, 2024

The race to resurrect the dodo

A U.S. bioengineering company wants to genetically re-create the dodo, the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger. The chief scientist behind these “de-extinction” efforts says bringing back lost species can help protect those that are endangered.

More than 99% of all species that have lived on Earth are now extinct, and we humans certainly have something to do with that.

Yet there is an entire scientific discipline devoted to bringing some of these species back. If you’re picturing those cloning scenes from “Jurassic Park” right now, we get it. But “de-extinction,” as it’s known, is not quite that.

Beth Shapiro is the chief science officer at Colossal Biosciences, a bioengineering startup working on de-extinction. She explained how the process works to Marketplace’s Lily Jamali.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Beth Shapiro: Instead of cloning, what we’re actually doing is taking living cells of animals that are still alive and using the tools of genome engineering to tweak bits and pieces of those genomes to make them more similar to those extinct species. So, the definition of “de-extinction” that Colossal likes to use is not to resurrect something that is 100% identical to a species that used to be here, but instead to resurrect those core phenotypes that made those species unique. In the case of the dodo, for example, we start with the genome of a Nicobar pigeon, which is the closest living relative of a dodo. What we want to do then is identify the parts of the genome where the dodo and the Nicobar pigeon are different from each other, and then engineer that Nicobar pigeon genome to have those core dodo genotypes, which will then translate into a pigeon that looks and acts more like a dodo than like a Nicobar pigeon.

Beth Shapiro (Courtesy Colossal Biosciences)

Lily Jamali: Got it. And so, in addition to the dodo, Colossal is also doing this de-extinction work on the woolly mammoth as well as the Tasmanian tiger, also known as the thylacine. Why those three species?

Shapiro: The reason that I like the choice of these three different species as targets for Colossal is we know that there will be different technical challenges associated with any species that’s chosen for de-extinction. And here we have a marsupial, a placental mammal and a bird. And the technical innovations that will be necessary to take the tools that we have and tweak them so that we can use them on these species will be immediately translatable to conservation of species that are not extinct but are perhaps in danger of becoming extinct. So birds, for example, there really isn’t any way right now to modify the genomes of many different species of birds. We know a little bit about how to work with chickens, but everything else we kind of don’t know how we would modify. And yet birds are among the most endangered species globally. So, if we can develop new technologies that will help us to be able to edit DNA sequences of birds, we could translate this to perhaps coming up with ways to save the Hawaiian honeycreeper from becoming extinct because of introduced avian malaria. And something that Colossal has repeatedly said is that any tools that are developed toward de-extinction will be made available for conservation for free.

Jamali: The dodo is an interesting choice for this work, given that the dodo is almost synonymous in our culture with the notion of extinction.

Shapiro: I think it’s a great choice because of that. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could take that example and rather than have it be synonymous with something terrible that people have done, change the reputation of the dodo to becoming synonymous with something amazing that we can do with the new tools and technologies that people have developed over the course of the last few decades?

Jamali: With this idea of conservation being such a driver of this technology, do you worry at all that this takes the burden off people to protect species before it’s too late?

Shapiro: Not at all. I mean, unfortunately, I think most people don’t really think about the extinction crisis inasmuch as it doesn’t actually affect them personally. And that suggestion kind of hints that people who do care will all of a sudden stop caring because there’s some futuristic technology that’s out there that might save us and right our wrongs. I don’t think these technologies should replace the traditional approaches to conservation that people have been working on and developing and implementing over the last several decades. But I do think that we should be growing the number of approaches that we have at our fingertips to be able to protect species and ecosystems.

The Colossal Biosciences lab. (Courtesy Colossal Biosciences)

Jamali: Well, it sounds really exciting. To someone who is new to this topic, how would you explain why you are doing this and why Colossal has gotten so immersed in trying to bring some of these extinct species back?

Shapiro: Starting with DNA sequences and eventually ending up with a living animal that actually contains some genetically modified traits — traits that we figured out that we wanted those animals to express — includes solving many of the hardest problems in biology right now. Not just how do we manipulate these cells? Or how do we get a whole bunch of edits into a genome? Or how do we choose the right edits to put into those genomes? All of these things are hard. And I love this. I am so excited to be absolutely engaged in trying to do this and in making this possible and taking the technologies that are just there at our fingertips and really tweaking them, fine-tuning them, so that they can be applied to solving some of these conservation challenges that we have today.

Conservation is not a zero-sum game. We need every tool at our disposal. And this is an opportunity to excite people, to bring in new money, to engage more members of the public. I mean, even the discussions that aren’t superpositive about Colossal and about de-extinction mean that we’re engaging people who otherwise wouldn’t have thought about this, and that is a win. It’s a win for biodiversity. It’s a win for humanity, and I’m all for it.

More on this

As you heard from Beth Shapiro, the dodo bird is not the only extinct animal that Colossal Biosciences is working to bring back. The company has drawn a lot of attention in recent years for its woolly mammoth project, which launched in 2021.

This spring, scientists working to revive the lost species announced a breakthrough in genetic engineering. They say they’ve successfully reprogrammed Asian elephant cells into an embryo-like state that can give rise to every cell type. The lab says the discovery opens up a path to creating reproductive cells from elephants in the lab, rather than having to take tissue samples from living elephants, which is hard to do given they’re endangered.

And finally, the elephant — or shall we say mammoth — in the room: the “Jurassic Park” movies. If you’re going to do this work, fielding questions about the action franchise comes with the territory.

As Wired’s Matt Reynolds points out, despite years of shrugging off the comparisons, Colossal is bringing in a former Hollywood executive involved in titles like “Pacific Rim,” “Godzilla,” and yes, “Jurassic World.” She’ll manage marketing as the company plans a documentary series that will follow its efforts to bring back extinct species using gene editing. Airdate TBD.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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