Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Of all the species that have ever lived on Earth, it’s estimated that as much as 99.9 percent of them have gone extinct. Today, it’s thought that there are between five and ten million species alive on our planet, and that humankind has only recorded about one fifth of all that’s out there… but even those startling figures pale into insignificance compared to everything there ever has been. We lose more and more species with every passing year, too, as fears mount for the long term safety of our seemingly diverse ecosystems. But now, for the first time ever, are we capable of turning the tide? This is Unveiled, and today we’re taking a closer look at how modern science is bringing ancient animals back to life. Do you need the big questions answered? Are you constantly curious? Then why not subscribe to Unveiled for more clips like this one? And ring the bell for more thought-provoking content! When you think of extinct creatures, what’s the first one that comes to mind? There are a number of high profile candidates, including wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and megalodon sharks. But one of the more unassuming characters in our menagerie of animals lost… is the dodo bird. The dodo was a flightless bird found only on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. An endemic species, it today stands as a national symbol of the country, prominently featuring on its coat of arms. However, it’s also an icon of extinction. In 1598, Dutch explorers first arrived in Mauritius, at which time the dodo was still alive and well. There are various written accounts and painted artworks depicting it, although without photographic evidence the details of its exact appearance do vary. Nevertheless, it’s thought to have been about three feet tall, with brownish feathers, a distinctly smooth and rounded head, and a multi-coloured beak. Up until the Dutch arrival, it had lived a fairly peaceful life, on an island where the threat of predators was low. However, within a century of Dutch settlement, the dodo had disappeared entirely, died out, with the last reported sighting in 1688, and so its story is one of the best known case studies to show the devastating impact that human activity can have on other populations. Through a combination of hunting it and totally transforming its environment, the Dutch killed the dodo. Now, though, scientists are genuinely hoping to turn back time. In February 2023, news broke of a new attempt to bring the dodo back to life. At the forefront is Colossal Biosciences, a biotech and genetic engineering company based in Texas. You might’ve heard of Colossal previously, for its reportedly ongoing attempts to resurrect the mammoth… but now it’s branched out to the dodo, as well. Colossal specializes in attempts toward de-extinction, or resurrection biology. According to its own website, this is the reversal of plant and animal extinctions by creating new versions of previously lost species. Broadly, Colossal suggests three main ways in which this could be achieved; back breeding, cloning, and/or genome editing. Some methods are more directly focussed on making use of (and preserving) living species, especially cloning. But thanks to various breakthroughs in the past century or so, it is now possible for scientists to view long dead creatures from the new perspective of their possible return. With Colossal’s plans for the dodo, CRISPR gene editing is key. The team, which is comprised of company members and various advisors from around the world, has already sequenced the dodo’s genome and identified its closest living relative, which are two crucial first steps. Dodo remains are quite rare, but they do exist in some museums… and have then been used to extract key information regarding its DNA. Meanwhile, its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, a vibrant blue-green bird found on multiple islands across Asia, in the Indian Ocean, and in the South Pacific. It’s thought that the dodo and the Nicobar pigeon shared a common ancestor around thirty million years ago, according to research by one of Colossal’s advisors, the molecular biologist Beth Shapiro. However, from this point, there is still a lot of work left to do. Moving forwards, and having recently secured a significant funding package reportedly upwards of $200 million, Colossal aims to compare and contrast dodo and Nicobar pigeon DNA, to identify all the differences between the two. In doing so, they will effectively be discovering exactly what it was that made a dodo a dodo. Next, one possibility is to use CRISPR to cut and splice the pigeon DNA inside carefully selected cells, to make it more like the dodo DNA of yesteryear. And finally, that edited material would need to be placed inside a suitable egg, to mature until hatching. There are a number of potential hurdles in place, not least with the egg itself. The Nicobar pigeon egg would be far too small for a dodo chick… so researchers will need to identify another option. It’s also important to highlight how the entire process is really geared toward creating a copy of the dodo - a version, as Colossal itself describes it - rather than just magicking an animal that doesn’t exist anymore back into existence again. Initial reaction to the plans is (and has been) mixed. First, many view the so-called “return of the dodo” as probably unfeasible on a practical level. There are so many bridges to make between dodo DNA and anything that’s alive today, that some view any attempt to do so as an impossible quest. Of course, those at Colossal Biosciences do remain confident, and the more optimistic outlook says that we do now at least have the knowledge required to make de-extinction happen… it’s just a matter of converting that knowledge into something that’s actually workable. There are ethical concerns too, however, from a couple of different directions. There are questions raised for the hypothetically resurrected dodo itself. If the venture were successful, then opponents highlight how we’d be bringing the animal back into a vastly changed environment. Colossal reportedly intends to reintroduce dodos back to Mauritius only, but the country (along with most of the rest of the world) has changed immeasurably in the three hundred-plus years since the original dodo was last seen. So, would a reintroduced species even be able to survive? There have been other criticisms lodged regarding allocation of resources, as well. While rebirthing extinct species could be seen as a potential triumph for conservation, many argue that science should be more concerned with protecting endangered species that are still living, but might not be for much longer. Rather than bringing back the dodo, we should be saving the rhino, for example. What’s your verdict on this particular debate? Let us know in the comments! On the other hand, Colossal, other companies like it, and supporters of de-extinction argue that, actually, there are strong links to be made between resurrection biology and present day, real time conservation efforts. In general, some hope that de-extinction projects will dramatically highlight just how much the world has been adversely affected by human activity, perhaps more so than any other experiment so far. With the dodo as an icon for extinction - perhaps comparable to the panda as an icon for conservation - perhaps it will lead to a new understanding of what we’ve lost, and a new fortitude to return back to a greener world. More than that, though, there could yet be other major scientific benefits achieved via de-extinction work. Colossal itself has claimed intentions toward building a library of genetic material… yes, of extinct species, but also of living but endangered animals. It feeds into a new direction for conservation, where physically cataloging creatures at their DNA level could represent one way in which to prevent them from ever being lost. In the case of the dodo, we’re working backwards… but for future cases, we could be meticulously prepared. Future generations might no longer need to rely on written accounts or even photographic evidence of what was here… because they’ll literally have it all on file. The return of the dodo is certainly attracting attention, and Colossal Biosciences appears determined to push forwards with its goal. With gene editing at the heart, it could yet prove a vital moment in science history, although there are plenty of practical problems and ethical issues to overcome before it becomes a reality. How do you feel about this particular field of study? If we can do it, does that mean we should? Because, for now, that’s how science is bringing back ancient animals. What do you think? Is there anything we missed? Let us know in the comments, check out these other clips from Unveiled, and make sure you subscribe and ring the bell for our latest content.