Bringing Back Dodo? This Company Wants to Bring the Extinct Bird Back to Life

A while ago, I wrote an article about the possibility of bringing back extinct animals to life. In that article, it was the case of Tasmanian tiger and marsupial rat. The biotechnology company that wants to do this, Colossal Biosciences, wanted to genetically recreate woolly mammoth and, well, thylacine.

Recently, dodo came to the list of extinct species they want to resurrect. “I’ve always been fascinated with the dodo. It’s the poster child, in a sad way, for how human habitat alteration can drive species to extinction,” Colossal’s lead paleogeneticist Beth Shapiro said.

As we know, the bird used to roam free in island of Mauritius until humans in the 17th century introduced new species in the island and hunted them to death. A team at the University of California sequenced its genome in 2022, and now the biotechnology company wants to revive dodo by editing the genomes of its living relatives.


On the way to recreate dodo

After getting the dodo’s sequenced genome, the company’s scientists plan to edit genes from the Nicobar pigeon, the dodo’s closest living relative. Next, they aim to remove germ cells from the pigeon’s egg and edit the genes to make them more dodo-like, then implant the cells back into the egg.

This gene editing has happened and worked to breed chickens. But chickens, pigeons, and an extinct species is a whole another story.

“That’s the big, hard part jumping from chicken species, which many labs in the world do, to other bird species. I’ve been trying for about ten years to culture germ cells from other bird species. It’s hard,” said Mike McGrew, an avian gene editing specialist at the University of Edinburgh.

The challenges are a) should the project succeed; the dodo might not behave like one. It’ll be a completely new type of bird (in its now completely different habitat), only one of its kind—it won’t know how to survive in the wild. And b) if there was no environment viable enough for the new dodo, it would potentially cause an ethical outcry.

According to Shapiro, any introduced species (which are sometimes invasive) in Mauritius will have to be removed before dodos can survive there again.

Colossal founder Ben Lamm has remained optimistic about the whole project. “I think this is an opportunity where, given the man-made nature of the extinction of the dodo, man could not only bring the dodo back, but also fix what was done to parts of the ecosystem to reintroduce them. There’s a lot of benefits from a conservation perspective, in terms of what we can learn from rewilding.”


Concerns and skepticism from other scientists and experts

Ambitious and controversial projects such as this one undoubtedly become a lightning rod for criticism.

Some scientists argue that the hundreds-of-million-dollars fund raised by Colossal shouldn’t be spent on de-extinction attempts and instead should go to other projects aiming to support remaining biodiversity conservation.


a recreation of the Dodo by Fiver, der Hellseher Wikimedia Commons


Jason Gilchrist, an ecologist at Edinburgh Napier University, said, “Resurrection requires huge amounts of money and investment in expertise and technology, with a relatively low probability of success. I feel that we should be concentrating on saving what biodiversity we still have (which we are not doing a great job of) rather than investing in projects to bring back species that we have already failed.”

“There’s so many things that desperately need our help. And money. Why would you even bother trying to save something long gone, when there’s so many things that are desperate right now?” added Julian Hume, an avian paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum.

Some also think that these types of attempts are just for show, as expressed by Jeremy Austin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Adelaide. “De-extinction is a fairytale science. It’s pretty clear to people like me that thylacine or mammoth de-extinction is more about media attention for the scientists and less about doing serious science.”


Looking from an ethical standpoint

Experts are also unsure about Colossal’s project, as it may encourage irresponsible point of view.

Resurrecting dodo doesn’t help the species, as it already vanished centuries ago at the hands of humans. And if they were to return one day, they might not have a good life due to a completely new environment, and therefore comes the possibility of them going extinct again—though this time it’s due to their own inability to adapt.

There’s also concern for any other animals which will have been affected by the project. Josh Milburn, a moral and political philosophy lecturer at Loughborough University, argued that although Colossal wants to release dodo back to their native home, the island of Mauritius, the company should also consider its new inhabitants.

“If the plan is to re-release dodos onto Mauritius, we need to ask about the impact that such a release will have on the people and animals who live there now. If the impact will be negative, that gives us a very good reason to pause,” Milburn said.

Another question also asks, if we finally had the ability to bring back dead species to life, wouldn’t we feel like we could treat any species recklessly?

“Will we be able to maintain respect for a wild nature that we are increasingly manipulating, controlling, even attempting to re-create via genetic engineering?” asked Arizona State University’s Ben Minteer.

In his book, ‘The Fall of the Wild: Extinction, De-Extinction, and the Ethics of Conservation,’ Minteer expressed his concern about the power to take hold of the ecological and evolutionary reins and how attempts like Colossal’s promote it harder.

“I think true power resides not in greater control of nature, but in acts of forbearance, especially when our interventions may undermine other environmental values that we care about,” Minteer said.



Positive sides to de-extinction

Of course, there are positive and negative sides to Colossal’s adventurous efforts, and some other academics believe that there would be something to gain despite the pessimistic response from some experts.

For example, Julian Koplin, a bioethics lecturer at the Monash Bioethics Centre, stated that if we succeeded in bringing back dodo, despite the difficulties and costs, it would bring public excitement at the idea of undoing the damage that humans have done to biodiversity. It might also make humans care more about conservation, with well-known creatures like the dodo and thylacine making a comeback right in front of their eyes.

I’m not going to lie, the possibility of seeing dodo alive and well does bring me to a certain level of excitement. But I’ll be more than satisfied to see (and maybe pet) a close-to-life animatronic of it, just like in dinosaur-themed exhibitions.

Koplin said, “Maybe bringing back the dodo (or something like it) would be a powerful and inspiring success story that can get people excited about ecological issues in a way that gloomy reports about extinctions just can’t.”

Although, speaking of glum stories, Minteer argued that there have been a lot of things going right. “Success stories are everywhere, from endangered species pulled back from the brink to river restoration projects, to ranchers and conservationists working together to mitigate rural sprawl.”

While I agree that reviving dodo can also bring a morale boost, I tend to side with the cautious take from the experts. Besides, the negative aspects of this idea may make people focus more on the existing species and the little wins we have right now.

But what do you think about this de-extinction effort? Share your thoughts in the comments.



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