Opinion – Reinaldo José Lopes: Dodos, mammoths and other resurrections


Earlier this week, a colleague (who will remain anonymous) dumped in my lap one of those situations that today’s youth tend to call a “random ride”: being interviewed live by an Indian TV program (?!) about the attempts to resurrect the dodos by scientific methods (?!!!).

I imagine that science journalists from India itself or English-speaking countries were in short supply that day. Anyway, I did my best to try to explain to the presenter why she thought it was 1) unlikely to happen anytime soon and 2) an ethically questionable idea. With a little more calm, that’s what I’ll do again now.

Dodos (Raphus cucullatus) lived on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until probably the end of the 17th century. It was during this time that uncontrolled hunting by European sailors and the introduction of invasive species seem to have wiped out the species. Bones and other tissue preserved in museums are all that’s left of the animal immortalized in “Alice in Wonderland”.

Despite their peculiar appearance, dodos were nothing more than overgrown members (weighing about 10 kg) of the columbidae group, to which doves belong. The recently announced resurrection plan by the company Colossal Biosciences would precisely involve using the genome of modern pigeons as the “chassis” (pardon the automobile metaphor) on top of which the genetic material of the dodos would be assembled.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? After all, we already have the complete genome of the dodos. It would be enough to check the points where there are differences between their DNA and that of today’s pigeons, change everything to the “dodo version” of the genome and get a good incubator for the resurrected eggs.

However, this is one of those classic cases in which the theory is different in practice. The changes needed to really completely transform the genome of one species into that of another, even if they are closely related, are in the hundreds of thousands or millions of chemical “letters” of DNA.

No genome-editing method has come close to doing anything even remotely like this to date. And then there’s the fact that the hit rate for the changes is far from very high. Some “letters” are always changed in an unwanted way or in places where this was not necessary.

Therefore, both in the case of dodos and in the case of any other animal candidate for resurrection, such as mammoths, the most that current biotechnology is capable of offering would be the production of animals that are essentially their modern relatives with some characteristics of the extinct creature. A “dodonized” dove, say, or perhaps a hairy Asian elephant with a more pronounced crown on top of its head, just like mammoths.

Anyone less dazzled is capable of realizing that this has nothing to do with resurrection. At best, it is a method of producing curiosities, with no guarantees that individuals generated in this way will be healthy or lead decent lives.

Those responsible for this type of initiative are talking about raising funds in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s very hard not to think that this huge amount of money would be much better spent trying to save species that haven’t disappeared yet. I hear there are a few thousand of them out there these days.

You May Also Like

Recommended for you

Immediate Peak