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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Why Bother Bringing Back the Dodo?

Pity the dodo. First, Dutch colonists and their entourage of dogs, cats, and rats erased the birds from their native Mauritius in the late 17th century. Then later generations turned the fat, flightless creature into the butt of jokes for centuries to come. The chonky bird is a byword for clumsy obsolescence. Just look at it: It was practically asking to go extinct.

Except it wasn’t, of course. It was all our fault. The dodo was perfectly adapted to its environment. It was us humans who had to come along and ruin everything with our hunting, murdering, plundering ways. But now a biotech startup called Colossal Biosciences is trying to make amends for humankind’s past sins: It wants to de-extinct the dodo.

Bringing back the dodo isn’t the first audacious de-extinction project from Colossal. The startup—cofounded in 2021 by Harvard geneticist George Church and serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm—also has plans to bring back the mammoth and the thylacine. Or kind of, at least. The plan is actually to edit the genomes of living relatives of extinct creatures and so create animals that occupy similar ecological niches as their distant cousins. Not mammoths or dodos exactly, but what Colossal calls “functional” mammoths or dodos.

Whether creating a functional dodo technically counts as de-extinction is up for debate, but the project has piqued investors’ interest. Along with the dodo news, Colossal announced a $150 million Series B funding round, bringing its total funding to $225 million. That’s big money in the conservation space—particularly for a biotech startup with just 83 employees. The US conservation nonprofit the Sierra Club, by way of comparison, raised about $100 million in donations in 2021.

But de-extincting the dodo won’t happen overnight. In 2021 George Church told Stat News that the project to resurrect the mammoth might take six years to produce a calf, and another 10 to 12 for that calf to reach sexual maturity. Resurrecting the dodo presents a whole different set of challenges, which we’ll get into later, so you can expect that project to take a good while too. While it has significant backing from its funders, Colossal will also have to find some other way to make money. And that’s when the company starts to look a lot less like a firm hellbent on one crazy idea and much more like a traditional biotech startup.

Cofounder Ben Lamm says that the focus at Colossal isn’t just on de-extinction. Along the way, he plans to spin out other startups and technology that can help fund their efforts—and maybe bring in a tidy profit. In September 2022, Colossal spun out its first startup, Form Bio, which launched with a $30 million Series A funding round. Form Bio is developing a software platform, designed to help scientists manage large and complicated datasets, that could be useful for drug discovery, gene therapy, and academic research.

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Lamm says that Colossal won’t necessarily spin out companies every year, but one of Colossal’s aims is to figure out how its technology could be put to work beyond de-extinction. Colossal has a team dedicated to product development, and twice a month they join a meeting with the company’s biologists to try and figure out which elements of the company’s work could be turned into new companies or technology platforms.

This makes a lot of sense. De-extincting an entire species will require breakthroughs in all kinds of areas: gene editing and sequencing, artificial wombs, and so on. Lamm wants all the technology Colossal develops to have potential applications—and paying customers—in the world of human health care. “That’s fundamental to our technology strategy,” he says.

The founder has a few other ideas for potential revenue streams. One is a way for scientists to rapidly analyze gene-edited cells and check that the edits work as expected. He’s also excited by some of the work that Colossal’s embryology team is working on. “We think this has massive applications across all IVF,” he says. “But whether we’ll spin out an IVF company is unclear. Maybe we’ll just license those technologies or whatnot.”

It’s clear that the potential for new spin-outs is part of why venture capitalists are excited about de-extinction. But the flow of money toward biotech might be subtly reshaping how we think about conservation: Is it about leaving things alone, or modifying species—like Colossal intends to do—so they can survive a world that humans have created? The flow of resources into this sector may change the sorts of conservation practices people engage in, says Ronald Sandler, professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University in Boston.

“There’s a new set of potential tools here, a new set of possibilities and opportunities,” Sandler says. What isn’t clear is whether these new tools actually address why we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event, or if they just dangle a technological panacea for the problem, which is that humans are consuming much more of the world’s resources than they should. “There’s a risk of losing sight of what the real problem is that really needs to be solved,” Sandler says.

As well as these thorny philosophical questions, Colossal also has to contend with the scientific challenge of resurrecting an extinct bird species. Birds present some unique challenges to de-extinction because it’s much harder to access the genetic information inside bird embryos. Instead, Colossal plans to edit cells that become egg or sperm cells, and then implant those into developing bird embryos. The bird will then grow up with egg or sperm cells that contain the genetic recipe for a functional dodo—or something approaching that. Scientists can then breed these birds with the hope of eventually producing a bird that resembles the dodo. 

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

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But the hope is that these projects could have benefits far beyond single species. “In the process we’re going to be working out some compelling things about life broadly and individual species in depth,” says Tom Chi, founder of At One Ventures, a climate-focused venture capital fund and Colossal investor. He points to the startup’s work on a vaccine for fatal elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) as one example where conservation could still benefit from Colossal’s work, even if it isn’t able to bring back the mammoth.

“We’re living in the old era of conservation right now,” says Chi. “And honestly, we are not winning that game at all.” Developing new tools like de-extinction could finally help conservation to address the sheer scale of species loss happening on Earth right now, he says. “In a deeply thoughtful way we can be folks that really tend to the health of our planet, that really build a deep compassion for other folks as well as others.”

Maybe. But there’s also a danger that de-extinction technology just puts a modern spin on one of the age-old problems of conservation: A few charismatic species are saved while the rest of nature burns. That doesn’t have to be the case. Genetic sequencing is a powerful tool for helping conservationists, and we desperately need to understand more about the animal kingdom. It might just be that the least moonshot-y parts of Colossal’s work are the bits that end up having the biggest impact.

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