WASHINGTON (AP) — The dodo bird isn’t coming back anytime soon. Neither did the woolly mammoth. But a company working on technologies to recover extinct species has attracted more investors, while other scientists are skeptical that such feats are possible or a good idea.
Colossal Biosciences first announced its ambitious plan to revive the woolly mammoth two years ago, and on Tuesday said it also wanted to bring back the dodo bird.
“The dodo is a symbol of man-made extinction,” said Ben Lamm, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of Colossal. The company has formed a division to focus on bird-related genetic technologies.
The last dodo, a flightless bird the size of a turkey, was killed in 1681 on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
The Dallas company, which launched in 2021, also announced Tuesday that it had raised an additional $150 million in funding. To date, it has raised $225 million from wide-ranging investors including America’s Innovative Technology Fund, Breyer Capital and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm that invests in technology.
The prospect of bringing back the dodo is not expected to directly generate money, Lamm said. But the genetic tools and kits the company develops to try to do so may have other uses, including in human health care, he said.
For example, Colossal is now testing tools to modify various parts of the genome simultaneously. He is also working on technologies for what is sometimes called an “artificial womb,” she said.
The dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, said Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist on Colossal’s scientific advisory board, who has been studying the dodo for two decades. Shapiro is paid for by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press Department of Health and Sciences.
His team plans to study the DNA differences between the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo to understand “what are the genes that actually make a dodo a dodo,” he said.
The team can then try to edit the Nicobar pigeon cells to resemble dodo cells. It is possible to put the modified cells into the developing eggs of other birds, such as pigeons or chickens, to create offspring that in turn can naturally produce dodo eggs, Shapiro said. The concept is still in an early theoretical stage for dodos.
Because animals are a product of both their genetics and their environment, which has changed dramatically since the 1600s, Shapiro said that “it’s not possible to recreate a 100% identical copy of something that’s gone.”
Other scientists wonder if it’s wise to try, questioning whether “de-extinction” diverts attention and money from efforts to save species still on Earth.
“There is a real danger in saying that if we destroy nature, we can put it back together, because we can’t,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who has no connection to Colossal.
“And where the hell would you put a woolly mammoth, besides in a cage?” asked Pimm, who pointed out that the ecosystems where mammoths lived are long gone.
On a practical level, conservation biologists familiar with captive breeding programs say it can be difficult for zoo-raised animals to adapt to the wild.
It helps if they can learn from other wild animals of their kind, an advantage potential dodos and mammoths won’t have, said Boris Worm, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who has no connection to Colossal.
“Preventing species from going extinct in the first place should be our priority, and in most cases, it’s much cheaper,” Worm said.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.