Explained: Can the extinct dodo bird be brought ‘back to life’?

Genetic engineering company Colossal Biosciences is attempting to bring back the bird as a part of its ‘de-extinction efforts’. It plans to develop tools to examine the bird’s DNA for crucial features they believe they may later effectively rebuild within the body of a living relative

Vibhuti Sanchala February 01, 2023 17:27:13 IST
Explained: Can the extinct dodo bird be brought ‘back to life’?

A rare fragment of a Dodo femur bone is displayed for photographs next to an image of a member of the extinct bird species at Christie's auction house's premises in London. AP

Is it possible to bring back the dodo, a Mauritian bird that was last seen in the 17th century?

Genetic engineering company named Colossal Biosciences is attempting to do so.

It is currently developing technologies to bring back extinct species. Despite the fact that the company has attracted more investors, scientists remain sceptical of such feats.

On Tuesday, the company announced its ambitious plan to resurrect the extinct dodo bird as a part of its “de-extinction efforts,” according to the Associated Press.

Let’s understand if it is possible to bring back the extinct species again.

Also read: Around half of bird species in decline globally, moving ‘ever faster’ to extinction

What is Colossal’s ambitious plan?

Ben Lamm, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of Colossal said, “The dodo is a symbol of man-made extinction.”

The Dallas-based firm announced an extra $150 million (~Rs 1,229 crore) in fundraising. To date, it has received $225 million (~Rs 1,843 crore) in funding from a diverse group of investors, including the United States Innovative Technology Fund, Breyer Capital, and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm that invests in technology, reported AP.

Explained Can the extinct dodo bird be brought back to life

The skeleton of a dodo, an extinct bird, in the Evolution’s great gallery of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. AFP

Also read: Scientists list iconic orange-and-black monarch butterflies as endangered

How is Colossal planning to do so?

“The prospect of bringing the dodo back isn’t expected to directly make money, but the genetic tools and equipment that the company develops to try to do it may have other uses, including for human health care,” he said.

For example, Colossal is now testing tools to tweak several parts of the genome simultaneously. It’s also working on technologies for what is sometimes called an “artificial womb,” he explained.

Notably, Colossal has already begun initiatives to resurrect the woolly mammoth and thylacine.

The dodo, on the other hand, would be its first bird, which is noteworthy because it would need altering the gene editing approach to fit an external egg.

According to The Guardian, scientists can now examine the dodo bird’s DNA for crucial features that they believe they may later effectively rebuild within the body of a living relative.

Beth Shapiro, lead palaeogeneticist at Colossal told AP that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon. Her team plans to study DNA differences between the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo to understand what the genes that distinguish the dodo are.

The team may then try to alter Nicobar pigeon cells to look like dodo cells.

According to Shapiro, it may be possible to insert the modified cells into developing eggs of other birds, like pigeons or chickens, to produce offspring that will naturally produce dodo eggs.

For dodos, the concept is still in its initial conceptual phases.

Shapiro stated that “it’s not conceivable to rebuild a 100% identical replica of something that’s gone” since animals are a result of both their DNA and their environment, which has changed considerably since the 1600s, as per AP.

Is it possible to bring back dodos?

In comparison to gene-editing with mammalian species, it would be “less stressful” with egg-laying bird, according to The Guardian.

The report explains that in the case of mammals, the approach entails inserting gene-editing material into the reproductive system of an existing relative, such as an elephant.

In practice, it may take several pregnancies to produce viable children using this procedure.

Thus, it would be noteworthy if Colossal manages to be successful in its plan to revive the dodo bird as no one has yet managed to use gene editing for birds in a similar manner.

Prof Ewan Birney, deputy director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, who was not associated with Colossal’s study, told The Guardian that recreating the dodo genome would be “very very challenging” on a technical level.

He explained it to the outlet, “There is no doubt this is an iconic bird. I’ve no idea whether the mechanics of this will work as they claim, but the question is not just can you do this but should you do it. There are people who think that because you can do something you should, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves, and whether this is really the best allocation of resources. We should be saving the species that we have before they go extinct.”

It helps if they can learn from other wild animals of their kind — an advantage that potential dodos and mammoths won’t have, said Boris Worm, a biologist at the University of Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told AP.

“Preventing species from going extinct in the first place should be our priority, and in most cases, it’s a lot cheaper,” he added.

Also read: What is a ‘mass extinction’ event? And is the earth currently facing one?

When was the bird declared extinct?

According to Britannica.com, the last dodo was killed in 1681.

More than five centuries ago, Portuguese sailors found the dodo on the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

According to the site, the birds, which were larger than turkeys, were killed for food. Dodo eggs were eaten by pigs and other animals brought to the island.

“The dodo is a prime example of a species that became extinct because we—people—made it difficult for them to exist in their native habitat,” said Beth Shapiro in a statement, according to USA Today.

Explained Can the extinct dodo bird be brought back to life

The picture shows dodo fossil bones after they were discovered at an apparent ‘mass grave’ of the extinct flightless bird on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. AFP

What other benefits could Colossal’s research provide?

The utilisation of gene editing and biotech developments for extinction “will inevitably have utility in the human healthcare field,” Lamm said according to USA Today.

CRISPR gene editing technology is already being used to fix genetic mutations detected in diseases.

We’ll be building new tools to enable more complex editing protocols, which will advance the state of the art when compared to what is available in the healthcare industry,” he explained as per the report.

With inputs from agencies

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