Back in the days of Watson and Crick when DNA was first discovered, many believed their work would lead to incredible advances. The potential of manipulating genes and their blueprints included curing debilitating diseases and perhaps even enhancing performance. Indeed, this vision is progressively being realized through genomics and precision medicine today. But even those with tremendous foresight might not have anticipated genetics being used to bring back extinct species. But that is precisely what one company hopes to do through the revival of extinct bird species. Specifically, they plan to use genetic engineering for cloning a dodo bird.
The company, Colossal Biosciences, recently made headlines because of the additional capital support it has received. In a time where entrepreneurs are struggling to find venture capital, Colossal Biosciences is not. Their recent funding of $150 million brings their total support to roughly $225 million. It also provides the company with a valuation of $1.5 billion. Thus, not only is their genetic engineering for cloning goals earned them cash. It’s also made them a modern-day unicorn, which is nearly as extinct as the dodo bird. Therefore, it’s worth exploring why the revival of extinct bird species is so appealing.
“Along the lines of being able to bring a species back, we’re going to learn things we can’t learn in a wet lab. When you’re doing big things like this, who knows what you’re going to discover along the way.” – Thomas Tull, United States Innovative Technology Fund
A Colossal Appeal
Colossal Biosciences, based in Dallas, launched in 2021. As such, it is a relatively new startup, which makes its fund-raising abilities that much more impressive. From the start, they planned to invest in the revival of extinct bird and animal species. Notably, the dodo bird is not on the top of their list. They set their primary sights on bringing back the woolly mammoth followed by the Tasmanian tiger. The dodo bird was a third-place consideration and still is. And while none of these species are soon to appear in the lab, the company states its projects are progressing well. In fact, through genetic engineering for cloning, they expect to have a woolly mammoth by 2028.
Given that the company’s main pursuit is the revival of extinct birds and animals, its ability to raise funding is unusual. After all, while reintroducing past animal lineages to the world is intriguing, it’s not necessarily a money maker. Or is it? As it turns out, it’s not so much the actual extinct animals that interest investors. It’s the processes required to achieve these goals through genetic engineering for cloning. Already, Colossal Biosciences has spun off a software company, and others will likely follow. Specifically, a firm focused on gene-editing technologies and one dealing with an artificial womb are next in line. These are the types of endeavors that have venture capitalists intrigued.
“[Colossal Biosciences is] solving complex problems, and we’ve been pleased with the progress so far. Long-term, there will be significant revenue opportunities around sustainability, conservation, and re-wilding.” – Jim Breyer, Breyer Capital
A Highly Complex Endeavor
The revival of extinct bird or animal species is not easy, as you might assume. The process is one that is not only complicated but challenging in terms of materials. The lead geneticist Beth Shapiro at Colossal Biosciences has been working on cloning a dodo bird from preserved DNA for over two decades. Finding actual DNA from the species meant scraping skulls and visiting numerous museums in hopes of finding quality collections. But it was not until she found a well-preserved dodo bird in a Danish museum that she was able to fulfill her mission. With a complete dodo bird DNA in hand, she could then pursue genetic engineering for cloning the extinct bird.
Of course, genetic engineering for cloning any species isn’t as simple as cooking a family recipe. The revival of extinct bird and animal species is much more complex. First, Shapiro had to find a close genetic relative of the dodo bird, which turns out to be the Nicobar pigeon. The goal is to now alter the pigeon’s cells through gene-editing techniques to resemble the dodo bird’s cells. In theory, these altered cells can then be injected into developing eggs of the Nicobar pigeon. And when the offspring from those eggs mature and have eggs themselves, they might produce an actual dodo bird. This is all theory of course, but theory backed up by science.
“There’s a real hazard in saying that if we destroy nature, we can just put it back together again — because we can’t.” – Stuart Pimm, Ecologist, Duke University
A Pursuit with Ethical Implications
There are many startups and companies involved in genetic engineering for cloning today. Biotechnology firms are among those that are still making headlines during a tight venture capital funding climate. But Colossal Biosciences’ novel approach focused on a revival of extinct bird and animal species has attracted more than just funding. It has also been appealing to top research talent who had rather work on something “cool” instead of something routine. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Colossal Bioscience’s endgame represents the right pursuits. That’s because many have serious concerns about bringing something extinct back to life. Whether it’s a dodo bird or a woolly mammoth, reintroducing a genetically engineered clone into modern environments could be catastrophic.
Notably, such a species would have no other birds or animals from which to learn. Its DNA might be completely congruent with a past species. But it will lack the opportunity to learn survival skills from fellow creatures. In addition, modern habitats are unlikely to be similar to those in the past, posing unknown challenges for survival. And from a broader perspective, simply having the ability to de-extinct something undermines the importance of preventing extinction in the first place. The latter is far less costly and much safer for all involved. This needs to remain the primary focus, and genetic engineering for cloning shouldn’t change that.
This past year, the United Nations held a conference to talk about the world’s biodiversity crisis. Many investors from Wall Street and from other regions attended to learn about evolving environmental concerns. Certainly, companies like Colossal Biosciences are addressing these concerns from their own unique vantage point. And it’s very likely their efforts will lead to many discoveries that can aid science in many unforeseen ways. In regard to the revival of extinct bird and animal species, these pursuits are simply not critical. As such, we should learn as much as we can from the journey. When it comes to the destination, it’s okay if we never arrive.