After unveiling plans to de-extinct the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger, Dallas-based startup Colossal Biosciences has introduced its new star contender: the dodo bird.
Characterized by its large curved beak, plump torso, and small wings, the dodo is perhaps the most famous creature to become extinct. Well known for appearing in Alice in Wonderland and its movie adaptations, the news of its de-extinction has been met with enthusiasm from all corners of the world.
“If I have a cell and it’s living in a dish in the lab and I edit it so that it has a bit of dodo DNA, how do I then transform that cell into a whole living, breathing, actual animal?” mused paleogeneticist Beth Shapiro, lead scientist on the ambitious project.
“The way we can do this is to clone it, the same approach that was used to create Dolly the sheep, but we don’t know how to do that with birds because of the intricacies of their reproductive pathways.”
The Last of the Dodos
Endemic to the scenic island of Mauritius, 500 miles from the eastern coast of Madagascar, the pigeonlike beast first found its home there nearly 26 million years ago. With abundant food and no predators in sight, the species gradually evolved to fit its relaxed habitat, sporting heavier torsos, larger beaks, and smaller wings.
While the Indian Ocean island remained a haven for the dodo, explorers were soon drawn to its resource-rich shores. Mesmerized by what they saw, Dutch and Portuguese sailors arrived in boatloads, along with the rats, pigs, and monkeys that accompanied them. With no evolutionary experience with predators, the birds, who seemed fearless at first, began to fall victim to the new predators in town. Coupled with the destruction of their natural habitat, their numbers dwindled, and the last of these birds was sighted sometime in the late 1600s.
Revival of the Dodo
Shapiro, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the expert leading the de-extinction project at Colossal Biosciences. She’s been fascinated by the dodo for more than two decades, and has worked on extracting and sequencing their DNA for several years. With her efforts finally coming to fruition in March 2022, Shapiro announced that she had successfully sequenced the dodo genome.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the dodo,” said Shapiro, who led the team that fully sequenced the dodo’s genome for the first time, in a call with Motherboard. “It’s the poster child, in a sad way, for how human habitat alteration can drive species to extinction.”
Colossal Biosciences co-founder and CEO Ben Lamm concurred in the same call. “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.”
Scientists succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the dodo using bone specimens and other fragments. The next step is to edit the genes of a skin cell from the Nicobar pigeon, the closest living relative to the dodo, to match the extinct bird’s genome.
Then, a genetically modified cell will be utilized to create an embryo, which will be carried to term by a living surrogate mother, similar to the process used to create Dolly the sheep in 1996. The scientists anticipate that the resulting hatchling will exhibit characteristics of both the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo.
Colossal hopes to achieve this within the next six years, which is a challenging time line, but one that highlights the incredible advances made in genetic engineering in recent years.
While the science behind the genome project carries all the peculiarities that would make an Oscar-worthy movie — think Jurassic Park without the murderous dinosaurs — the stakes are high. Colossal, which launched in 2021 with $15 million in seed funding and closed a $60 million Series A round about a year ago, has raised $225 million to date. According to Bloomberg, the company is now valued at a staggering $1.5 billion.
The latest Series B funding of $150 million, led by investors including Thomas Tull, Breyer Capital, In-Q-Tel, and At One Ventures, has enabled Colossal to launch its Avian Genomics Group. “This will pursue the de-extinction of the iconic dodo, a bird species that was wiped out of its native ecosystem, Mauritius, as a direct result of human settlement and ecosystem competition in 1662,” said Colossal.
Colossal Biosciences’ Grand Aspirations
One could say Colossal Biosciences has been all about de-extinction from the get-go. The biotech company was founded by entrepreneur Ben Lamm and acclaimed geneticist and serial biotech founder George Church. Church is famed for his contributions to the Human Genome Project and his role in developing the revolutionary CRISPR technology. Lamm, on the other hand, has kick-started five different companies, including Chaotic Moon, which sold to Accenture, and was most recently co-founder and CEO of Hypergiant, an artificial intelligence company working with NASA and the Department of Homeland Security.
The duo met in 2019 in a Boston lab, where Church and his genetics team were working on using CRISPR technology to copy mammoth genes into the genome of an Asian elephant. For Lamm, it was love at first sight. Already intrigued by the Jurassic Park-style rumors, he couldn’t contain his excitement and immediately offered Church an invitation to team up on the venture.
“The World Wildlife Fund found that in the last 50 years, Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% at the hands of mankind,” said Lamm.
“By gathering the smartest minds across investing, genomics, conservation, and synthetic biology, we have the opportunity to reverse human-inflicted biodiversity loss while developing technologies for both conservation and human health care. We are honored to be backed by a dedicated and diverse group of investors and are excited to work to bring additional species back to the planet.”
While bringing back extinct animals is a part of the company’s grand aspirations, there’s much more at play. The company contends that its innovations in synthetic biology will not only benefit our lonely planet but also contribute to the United State’s high-tech superiority.
The implementation of diverse gene editing techniques will supply the agriculture sector with fresh biofuels and safeguarded biodiversity while enhancing human health through gene therapy and vaccine creation.
Said Lamm, “I’m really excited about advancing these technologies. Any technology that we develop that has applications to conservation, we want to subsidize and just give to the world.”