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Have pity on the dodo. First, Dutch colonists and their entourages of dogs, cats and rats wiped out the birds from their native Mauritius in the late 17th century. Then later generations turned the fat, flightless creature into the butt of jokes for centuries to come. Chunky bird is synonymous with clumsy obsolescence. Just look at this: it was practically asking to become extinct.
Of course it wasn’t. It was all our fault. The dodo was perfectly adapted to its environment. It was us humans who had to come together and lay waste to everything with our hunting, killing, plundering ways. But now a biotech startup called Colossal Biosciences is trying to atone for mankind’s past sins: It wants to make the dodo extinct.
Bringing back the dodo isn’t Colossal’s first audacious extinction project. The startup—launched in 2021 by Harvard geneticist George Church and serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm—also plans to bring back mammoths and thylacines. Or sort of, at least. The plan is in fact to edit the genomes of living relatives of extinct creatures and so create animals that occupy the same ecological niches as their distant cousins. Not mammoths or dodos at all, but what are called colossal “functional” mammoths or dodos.
Whether creating a functional dodo technically counts as de-extinction is debatable, but the project has piqued the interest of investors. With the Dodo news, Colossal announced a $150 million Series B funding round, bringing its total funding to $225 million. That’s a lot of money in conservation—especially for a biotech startup with just 83 employees. The American conservation nonprofit Sierra Club has raised nearly $100 million in donations in 2021 through comparison.
But the extinction of the dodo won’t happen overnight. George Church told State News in 2021 that the mammoth reintroduction project could take six years to produce a single calf, and 10 to 12 years for that calf to reach sexual maturity. Reviving the Dodo presents a different set of challenges, which we’ll get to later, so you can expect that project to take a good while as well. While it has significant support from its funders, Colossal will need to find some other way to make money. And that’s when the company starts to look a lot less like a firm hellbent on a crazy idea and a lot more like a traditional biotech startup.
Cofounder Ben Lamm says Colossal’s focus isn’t just on de-extinction. Along the way, he plans to spin off other startups and technology that could help fund his efforts—and perhaps bring in a tidy profit. In September 2022, Colossal launched its first startup, Form Bio, which launched with a $30 million Series A funding round. Pharm Bio is developing a software platform designed to help scientists manage large and complex datasets, which could be useful for drug discovery, gene therapy and academic research.