Scientists Launch Project To ‘De-Extinct’ the Dodo

Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The list of extinct species that genetic engineering company Colossal wants to bring back to life is growing. The latest addition: the dodo, reports USA Today.

The poster child of extinction

If extinction ever had a poster child, it would be the Dodo. The flightless and perhaps feckless bird lived on the island of Mauritius till it was driven to extinction by Portuguese sailors who hunted it and introduced several predators.

But now, scientists plan to use cutting-edge technology like DNA sequencing, gene editing technology, and synthetic biology to bring the bird back to life. As per MIT Technology Review, the Dodo is the third species picked for a ‘technological de-extinction’ by Austin-based Colossal Biosciences. Apart from the Dodo, the company is also working on using genome engineering to morph modern elephants back into wooly mammoths and to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger.

We’re clearly in the middle of an extinction crisis. And, it’s our responsibility to bring stories and to bring excitement to people in way that motivates them to think about the extinction crisis that’s going on right now,” said Beth Shapiro, lead palaeontologist at Colossal Biosciences to CNN.

According to Shapiro, Colossal has already completed an important step in the project— the full sequencing of the dodo’s genome from ancient DNA, using genetic materials extracted from dodo remains in Denmark.

From pigeon to dodo

The next step was to compare the genetic information of the bird with its closest bird relatives in the pigeon family—the extant Nicobar pigeon and the extinct Rodrigues solitaire, which is a giant flightless bird that used to live on an island close to Mauritius. Shapiro told CNN that this is a process that would let the researchers narrow down the genome mutations that “make a dodo a dodo.”

To resurrect the dodo from such genetic information, Colossal plans to modify the Nicobar pigeon step by step into a dodo and potentially “re-wilding” the animal in its native habitat, as per MIT Technology Review. That said, Colossal has not yet created any actual animal. In fact, making a dodo might even turn out to be impossible.

This is because scientists don’t yet know how many changes will be required to turn the pigeon into a three-foot-tall flightless bird. Also, even if they were to succeed, the researchers will not exactly be creating an exact copy of the bird. Rather, they would be creating an altered hybrid version of the bird with many similarities to the original.

Where do you put it?

The questions do not end there. Even if colossal succeeds in creating what it is calling a “functional proxy for the dodo,” where do you put it? If it were brought back to life, the dodo must somehow survive in a world that is significantly different from the one that it lived in more than 300 years ago.

Also, according to Scientific American, most animals have a mix of instinctive behaviour that is a combination of genetic programming and social behaviour that it learns from parents or in the case of social animals, the pack or the group. But there is no way to recreate the natural history that shaped the behaviour of the dodo or other extinct animals—or indeed, to know even what that was.

Mikkel Sinding, a postdoctoral researcher in paleogenomics at the University of Copenhagen told Scientific American that “There is nobody around to teach the dodo how to be a dodo,” aptly condensing the conundrum.

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Source: USA Today