Why return the dodo?

11 months ago
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This makes a lot of sense. Resurrecting an entire species will require breakthroughs in all areas: gene editing and sequencing, artificial queens, and so on. Lamm wants all of the technology Colossal develops to have potential applications — and paying customers — in the healthcare world. “This is the core of our technology strategy,” he says.

The founder has several other ideas for potential income streams. One is a way for scientists to quickly analyze cells with altered genes and see if the changes work as expected. He is also excited about some of the work that the Colossal embryology team is working on. “We think this has broad application in all IVF cases,” he says. “But whether we will spin off the ECO company is not clear. Maybe we just license these technologies or something like that.”

Understandably, the potential for new spin-outs is part of why venture capitalists are excited about the resurgence. But the influx of money in biotech could change our understanding of conservation a bit: Is it about leaving things alone or changing species – as Colossal intends to do – so that they can survive in a human-made world? The flow of resources into this sector could change the way people do conservation, says Ronald Sandler, professor of philosophy and director of the Institute of Ethics at Northeastern University in Boston.

“There’s a new set of potential tools here, a new set of possibilities and possibilities,” says Sandler. What is unclear is whether these new tools really explain why we are at the center of a mass extinction event, or whether they are simply manipulating a technological panacea for the problem that humans are consuming far more of the world’s resources than they should. “There is a risk of missing out on the real problem that really needs to be addressed,” Sandler says.

Beyond these thorny philosophical questions, Colossal also has to tackle the scientific challenge of resurrecting an extinct bird species. Birds present some unique extinction challenges because it is much more difficult to access the genetic information inside bird embryos. Instead, Colossal plans to edit the cells that become eggs or sperm and then implant them into developing bird embryos. The bird will then grow up with eggs or sperm that contain the genetic recipe for a functional dodo or something similar. Scientists can then breed these birds in the hope of eventually producing a dodo-like bird.

The dodo work is based on the research of Beth Shapiro, lead paleogeneticist at Colossal and a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2022, Shapiro produced first complete dodo genome. “Right or wrong, the dodo is a symbol of artificial extinction,” says Shapiro. Resurrecting the dodo will mean working on its closest living relative, the Nicobar pigeon, which lives on the islands and coasts of Southeast Asia.

But there is hope that these projects may benefit more than just individual species. “In the process, we are going to develop some interesting things about life in general and individual species in detail,” says Tom Chi, founder of At One Ventures, a climate-focused venture capital fund and investor in Colossal. He points to a startup working on a vaccine for deadly endotheliotropic elephant herpes virus (EEHV) as one example where Colossal’s work could still benefit conservation even if it fails to bring back the mammoth.

“We are now living in the old era of conservation,” Chi says. “And frankly, we’re not winning this game at all.” The development of new tools, such as resuscitation, could finally help conservation deal with the huge scale of species extinction happening on Earth right now, he says. “In deep thought, we can be people who truly care about the health of our planet, who truly evoke deep compassion for other people as well as others.”

May be. But there’s also the danger that extinction resurrection technology is simply giving a modern twist to one of age-old conservation issues: charismatic views persist while the rest of nature is burning. It shouldn’t be like this. Genetic sequencing is a powerful tool to help conservationists, and we desperately need to learn more about the animal world. Maybe it’s just the least successful parts of Colossal’s work that make the biggest impact.

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