The dodo: bringing back the woolly mammoth, the thylacine and the Tasmanian tiger
No other animal is as inexorably linked with extinction as the dodo, an odd-looking flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until the late 17th century.
The arrival of sailors brought with them a large population of non-native species. The dodo was doomed to extinction, it didn’t have a fear of humans.
Now, a team of scientists wants to bring back the dodo in a bold initiative that will incorporate advances in ancient DNA sequencing, gene editing technology and synthetic biology. They hope the project will open up new techniques for bird conservation.
“We’re clearly in the middle of an extinction crisis. Beth Shapiro is an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and she said that it is her responsibility to bring stories and excitement in order to get people to think about the extinction crisis.
Shapiro is the lead paleogeneticist at Colossal Biosciences, a biotechnology and genetic engineering start-up founded by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, which is working on an equally ambitious projects to bring back the woolly mammoth and the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger.
The dodo’s genome was sequenced using genetic material from the dodo remains inDenmark, as part of the first step in the project.
Bringing back rare birds by using primordial germ cells to recreate a pigeon species in a flock of exocholic reptiles
The approach involves removing primordial gems cells from an egg, cultivating them in the lab and editing the cells with the desired genetic traits before injecting them back to an egg at the same developmental stage, she explained.
The synthetic biology tools will have broader implications for bird rights, according to Shapiro. The techniques could help protect birds as habitats shrink and the climate warms.
“If we find that there’s something that provides immunity against a disease that’s hurting a population, and you know what the genetic changes underlying that immunity or that ability to fight off that disease is — maybe we can use these tools to transfer that even between closely related species,” she added.
According to Mike McGrew, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, the project is a moon launch for synthetic biology. His work involves using frozen primordial germ cells to bring back rare chicken breeds.
The idea is that you need to be able to do this with pigeon species. It is difficult to jump from Chicken species to other bird species, said McGrew who is a member of Colossal’s scientific advisory board.
Colossal Biosciences, based in Dallas, Texas, has landed US$225 million in investment (including funds from the celebrity Paris Hilton) — having previously announced plans to de-extinct thylacines, an Australian marsupial, and create elephants with woolly mammoth traits. But Colossal’s plans depend on huge advances in genome editing, stem-cell biology and animal husbandry, making success far from certain.
The Dodo: A Little Bird That Just Grows Biger and Less Weaker. A Case Study of Julian Hume at the Natural History Museum
Critics think the funds could be better utilized to protect the bird species and many other animals and plants listed as being in danger.
“There’s so many things that desperately need our help. And money. Why would you even bother trying to save something long gone, when there’s so many things that are desperate right now?” said Julian Hume, an avian paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum, who studies the dodo.
The dodo is a little known creature, with lots of myths surrounding it. Even the origin of its name is a mystery, though he thinks it stems from the sound of the call the bird was said to have made — a low-pitched pigeon-like coo.
It is very expensive to fly. If you don’t need it, why bother maintaining it? All the fruit and food is on the ground, and when you’ve become flightless, you can become big. That is what the dodo did, it just got bigger and bigger.
The dodo once stood around 70 cm tall and weighed about 33 to 39 lbs., according to a digital 3D model of the bird developed by Hume from a skeleton in the Natural Science Museum in South Africa.
How easy is it to change the DNA of quail? Thomas Jensen’s quest for a single genetic change to discover a dodo?
Before the dinosaurs were discovered, the concept of extinction didn’t exist. Everything was created by God and is here forever. The idea of wiping something out was not something that anyone could say it was possible to do.
He noted that it was an amazing bird at the time of discovery. “They disappeared rapidly. There was no one left to know more about them.
The amount of money available for this kind of research is amazing, says Thomas Jensen, cell and reproductive physiologist at Wells College. I am not sure that the goal that they are setting for is something that will be feasible in the near future.
Thousands of changes are not easy to make, even if researchers could identify every genetic difference. Jensen, whose team is attempting to make a single genetic change to the genomes of quail, doesn’t think it’s feasible in the near future.
Tom Gilbert, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Denver who also advises Colos sal, believes the dodo genome to be of top quality, because it came from a museum sample he gave to Shapiro. He claims that finding all the differences between the two birds is not possible. There are always gaps and mistakes in ancient genomes, which were cobbled together from short sequence of degraded DNA. And research he published last year comparing the genome of the extinct Christmas Island rat (Rattus macleari) with that of the Norwegian brown rat (Rattus norvegicus)2 suggests that gaps in the dodo genome could lie in the very DNA regions that have changed the most since its lineage split from that of Nicobar pigeons.
Focusing on only a subset of DNA changes, such as those that alter protein sequences, could slash the number of edits needed. But it’s still not clear that this would yield anything resembling a wild dodo, says Gilbert. He is worried that Paris believes she will get a dodo that looks like a dodo.
Jensen says that the problem is finding a large bird that can act as a surrogate. Dodo eggs are larger than Nicobar pigeon eggs, it is difficult to grow a dodo inside a Nicobar egg.
Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in Vacoas-Phoenix, is also enthusiastic about the attention dodo de-extinction could bring to conservation. “It’s something we would like to embrace,” he says.