February 09, 2023

The back section of my local newspaper picked up an AP article on an effort begin made to bring the dodo bird back from extinction.  Colossal Biosciences first announced a plan to revive the woolly mammoth two years ago, and recently said also wanted to bring back the dodo.  The Dallas company, which launched in 2021, said it had raised an additional $150 million in funding.  To date, it has raised $225 million from wide-ranging investors that include United States Innovative Technology Fund, Breyer Capital, and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm which invests in technology.  To bringing the dodo back is not expected to directly make money but the genetic tools and equipment that the company develops to try to do it have other uses, including for human health care.  Colossal is testing tools to tweak several parts of the genome simultaneously and is working on technologies for what has been called an “artificial womb”.

When I looked online, I found the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was a flightless bird endemic to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.  The dodo’s closest genetic relative was Rodrigues solitaire, and both were hunted to extinction.  The two were part of an extinct subfamily (Raphinae) of flightless birds that were a part of the family which includes pigeons and doves.  The subfossil (partly fossilized) remains show the dodo was about 39 inches (1 m) tall and may have weighed 23 to 39 pounds (10.6 to 17.5 kg).  The dodo’s appearance is only known by drawings, paintings, and written accounts from the 17th century, and these accounts vary considerably so the bird’s exact appearance is unresolved, and little is known about its behavior.  It is often described with brownish-grey plumage, yellow feet, a tuft of tail feathers, a grey, naked head, and a black, yellow, and green beak.  It used gizzard stones to help digest its food (fruits?), and its main habitat is thought to have been the woods in the drier coastal areas of Mauritius.  It is assumed the dodo became flightless due to the readily abundant food sources and an absence of predators on the island.  The last dodo was killed by humans in 1681.

Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist on Colossal’s scientific advisory board, has been studying the dodo for two decades.  The dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, and her team plans to study DNA differences between the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo to understand “what are the genes that really make a dodo a dodo.”  The team may then attempt to edit Nicobar pigeon cells to make them resemble dodo cells.  It may be possible to put the tweaked cells into developing eggs of other birds, such as pigeons or chickens, to create offspring that may in turn naturally produce dodo eggs.  The concept to recreate the dodo is still in an early theoretical stage.  The environment that supported the dodo has changed dramatically since the 1600’s and because animals are a product of both their genetics and their environment, Shapiro said, “it’s not possible to recreate a 100% identical copy of something that’s gone.”  Even while a company working on technologies to bring back extinct species has attracted more investors, other scientists are skeptical such feats are possible or a good idea.  While the dodo is not a dinosaur, it does recall the Jurassic Park series.  What could go wrong?

THOUGHTS:  The dodo is one of the best-known extinct animals and became known in popular culture as a symbol of an outdated concept or object.  Calling someone a dodo is slang for a stupid, dull-witted person, as the bird was said to be stupid and easily caught.  Detractors to reviving the dodo say this will diminish attempts to keep endangered species from extinction.  What does it matter if we can just bring it back?  Researchers say it will cost 100’s of millions to revive any species, and the result will not be the same as the original.  This leads to the question, “Who is the real dodo?”  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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