March 29, 2023

Dead like a dodo? Think again, because an American tech entrepreneur, Ben Lamm, plans to resurrect the extinct, fat, flightless pigeon, along with other long-gone species like woolly mammoths, and make a profit in the process. Or so he claims.

His company, Colossal Biosciences, announced this week that it has raised more than £120 million for the project. But the plan raises many questions. Can it be done? Will it be safe? Is it ethical? How will it bring in money?

Fortunately, a non-profit organization called Revive & Restore, run by entrepreneur Ryan Phelan and of which I am an advisor, has been pondering these issues for nearly a decade. Until recently, the extinction of a species seemed irreversible.

The dodo lived in Mauritius and, like many island ratites, proved vulnerable to monkeys and cats introduced by human migration. It became extinct in the middle of the 17th century. Only a few tattered hides remained.

There was once hope that cloning would revive some extinct species, particularly mammoths that quickly froze in the permafrost, but it turned out that their genes were too fragmented.

Dead like a dodo? Think again, because an American tech entrepreneur, Ben Lamm, is planning to bring the extinct, fat, runner pigeon back to life

It didn’t even work for a recently extinct Pyrenean ibex. But what we’ve been able to do in recent years — and thanks to huge advances in DNA sequencing — is piece together the genetic code of long-dead creatures.

The passenger pigeon, the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and the great auk, all of which have disappeared for a century or so, have been sequenced in this way. The mammoth, also dead a few thousand years.

To the general surprise, in 1997 a Swedish scientist succeeded in mapping the DNA of a Neanderthal who had been dead for more than 40,000 years. And last year the same thing was finally done for the dodo.

Forget Jurassic Park, though: dinosaurs, dead for tens of millions of years, remain inaccessible, their genetic material disintegrated long ago. Extracting their genes from mosquitoes in amber made a good plot for a novel and movie franchise, but can’t and won’t work in practice.

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For the dodo, however, the genetics are the easy part.

There are three more leaps scientists will have to make before extinct species can be reborn. All of which are currently impossible – but maybe not forever.

The first is to be able to edit the genes in a cell of a related living animal to make them the same as the extinct species. For the dodo, the closest cousin is the Nicobar pigeon; for the great auk, the auk; for the mammoth, the Indian elephant.

Other Long-Gone Species, Such As The Woolly Mammoth, Could Also Make A Comeback And Profits Could Be Made

Other long-gone species, such as the woolly mammoth, could also make a comeback and profits could be made

With the invention of gene editing in 2012, de-extinction didn’t always seem like science fiction. But current gene-editing techniques cannot work accurately on a large scale to make the tens of thousands, perhaps millions of tiny changes needed to make a dodo genome (the entire set of DNA found in a cell) to create from the genome of a pigeon. However, technology is advancing rapidly and within a decade it could be possible to have a pigeon cell with a complete set of dodo genes in a test tube.

The next step would then be to turn that cell into a bird. This too seemed impossible until a breakthrough a few years ago.

Scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland have worked out how to implant chicken cells into a duck embryo so that when the duck grows up, chicken sperm is produced.

It is therefore no great leap to think that one day in the lives of many readers a pair of male and female domestic pigeons will be able to produce dodo sperm and dodo eggs. Together they would come up with a complete dodo.

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Mammoths will be more difficult, as you need to find a suitable uterus to implant a mammoth embryo (Indian elephants will reject foreign embryos). Ben Lamm’s Colossal says it plans to invent an artificial womb along the way, but it won’t be easy.

The final step would be to breed some healthy new specimens, breed them, and generate a genetically diverse population capable of surviving in the wild. And a lot can go wrong. For example, the first animals of an extinct species can turn out to be horribly deformed if even the slightest mistake is made during gene editing.

But as for the many moral objections people raise against deextinction, many of them turn out to be unfounded. Indeed, we can be sure that an extinct species does not bring new diseases. Thawed mammoth remains that may have harbored all sorts of pathogens in the permafrost carry that risk — newborns don’t. Some people also say that animals go extinct for a reason – it’s better to leave them dead. But that ‘reason’ has often been human greed (we turned great auks into pillow stuffing) or carelessness (the vermin that killed dodos were brought to Mauritius by humans).

An ecological niche still exists for most of these species. There are fish in the North Atlantic that can eat great auks. Tasmanian tigers can hunt wallabies. Passenger pigeons are said to live on acorns. In fact, they would probably improve ecosystems. For example, there is a tree in Mauritius called the tambalacoque whose seeds were thought to germinate better if they first passed through the guts of dodos.

When it comes to mammoths, some argue that their loss changed Siberia’s ecology, turning fertile grassy steppe into barren pine forest.

Recreating that steppe would be good news for other species of mammals and birds.

Besides, mammoths wouldn’t be any scarier or more dangerous than African elephants today: despite their name, they’re about the same size. Then there’s the concern that de-extinction would take pressure off conservationists to save endangered species, but this seems unlikely.

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Of course we have to proceed with caution. All biotechnology should be subject to strict regulation; the recent dangerous harvesting and altering of wild bat viruses in China proves the same.

Matt Ridley, Pictured, Is A Former Tory Colleague And Author Of How Innovation Works

Matt Ridley, pictured, is a former Tory colleague and author of How Innovation Works

But really, a pair of new dodos waddling through a forest in Mauritius is much less risky than what the Wuhan scientists did.

However, there is one step I would never want to see taken.

And that is bringing back the Neanderthal. Keeping them in a zoo would be outrageous; integration into society impossible. It would be an ethical disaster. Not to mention they probably have to be carried in the womb of a human female.

Ben Lamm’s plans for Colossal are certainly ambitious. It’s a bit reminiscent of Steve Jobs’ philosophy of ‘fake it till you make it’: announce something before you’ve made it up. It worked for Jobs, of course, but de-extinction is much more difficult than making the iPhone. (Though Lamm’s investors should be concerned about that, not the rest of us.)

One thing is for the rest of us to worry about: if he is successful, who should decide what can be reborn?

Mad-tech billionaires shouldn’t be able to push long-dead creatures into the world without permission. It should really come down to government decisions – and probably international agreements and regulations.

I don’t expect living dodos at London Zoo, or great auks swimming off the Hebrides, or mammoths marching across the steppe before I die. But I do think my kids could – and I’m more jealous of that than I’m afraid of it.

Matt Ridley is a former Tory colleague and author of How Innovation Works.