In our lifetimes, we may see extinction counteracted by genetic advancement — only in my wildest dreams did I think I might one day type those words to begin a nonfiction article. Modern genetics already felt dangerously close to sci-fi with Dolly the Sheep and CRISPR. But, now, biotech has the potential to undo the wrongs of the human past, nullifying the species we eradicated as we colonized our way across the globe. Truly, we’ve almost reached a near Jurassic Park level of genetic ability, and the revelations obtained by approaching it already have incredible potential to improve our world.
To get updated on the state of genetic biotech, I trawled the site of the company that’s leading de-extinction tech, and the institutions across the globe who are collaborating with them. Continue reading below to discover the science behind de-extinction and the technology and people who are making science fiction a reality.
The Company Behind the Future of Genetic Applications
This incredible leap forward in biotech is being spearheaded by Colossal Biosciences, which officially launched in September of 2021. Pioneered by Harvard professor and geneticist George McDonald Church and entrepreneur Ben Lamm, the company aims to “de-extinct” animals that humans have contributed to the demise of in the past, including dodos, the Tasmanian tiger, and the wooly mammoth. Their approach is interdisciplinary, using a combination of genetic engineering, machine learning, embryology, stem cell science, conservation, and tissue development experts in their labs.
The company currently employs more than 60 researchers across the globe, most of which are located in one of their four labs, located in Dallas Texas, Boston Massachusetts, Cambridge Massachusetts, and Melbourne Australia. In addition, they partner with a wide variety of global research institutions, including the University of California, Santa Cruz, Cornell University, University of Potsdam, and Stockholm University.
In short, their team is brilliant and in collaboration with brilliant folks from all around the world. If any group of people were to manage such a feat in our lifetimes, Colossal has selected the best possible team to do so.
Two Years of Promising Advancement
As of late November 2023, lead paleontologist Beth Shapiro has successfully sequenced the full genome of the dodo. This is a colossal (pun intended) step forward in the species’ de-extinction, but there’s still quite a ways to go before de-extinction will actually be accomplished.
Colossal reports that, as a result of sequencing the dodo, it has now also sequenced the genome of several other closely related species to the dodo including the extinct Rodrigues solitaire and the still extant Nicobar pigeon, the dodo’s closest living relative. In the process of understanding the genome of the dodo, the team was able to gather information for related species, too! This most recent update is promising, indicating faster progress than what many thought would be possible and a decent potential for genetic sequence multi-tasking.
According to Shapiro, this next step in producing dodos may be the most challenging yet, as previous efforts have shown cloning birds to be specifically challenging. But the team isn’t without ideas. Geneticists at Colossal have found cells that act as a precursor for ovaries or testes in the Nicobar pigeon can grow successfully in a chicken embryo. They are now researching to see if these cells (called primordial germ cells, or PGCs) can turn into dodo sperm and egg cells. In short, primordial germ cells are a type of stem cell that migrate to reproductive regions of the body to develop into gametes and pass on genetic information to the next generation.
The Ethics of a Jurassic Park Future
While the prospect of de-extinction holds promise, it’s crucial to acknowledge the challenges and risks inherent in this ambitious endeavor. The reintroduction of extinct species into their native habitats poses potential ecological disruptions, and unforeseen consequences could arise. Ethical dilemmas, such as the impact on existing ecosystems and the welfare of the de-extinct species, merit careful consideration.
As is the case with any introduction of wildlife to a region, there’s a chance that reintroducing previously extinct creatures could upset the ecosystems they’re placed in. Since their disappearance, these habitats have undoubtedly adjusted — which will be more pronounced in long-extinct species. Some species may have even found new stability as other species have adjusted their traits and population sizes to fit the space left open by them. In reintroduction, the team must pay attention to how they affect the other species in the ecosystem — thankfully, they seem to have a good collection of ecologists on the team to do just that.
Also, adding these creatures back isn’t necessarily a solution to the imbalance we’re seeing in ecosystems across the globe. In many cases, reintroduction will be a costly and lengthy process that requires much maintenance and monitoring to ensure the billions (if not trillions) of dollars aren’t wasted. Colossal believes they have the tools to address this by “rebuilding species to be stronger and more resilient than predecessors”. The specific improvements they make to these creatures may very well solve that, but that will remain uncertain for the time being.
Any article on de-extinction would be remiss to not mention that this method of fixing our extinction problem is sort of a flashy Band-Aid. If we accomplish this incredible feat and then follow it up by failing to fix the problems that caused the extinctions in the first place, these tremendous efforts might be all for naught. A proper solution for ending the Anthropocene extinction will need to have a more multifaceted approach than reintroduction. Though I must commend the multidisciplinary action already put in place by Colossal, the actions aren’t yet wide enough to be an end-all-be-all solution for the crisis of industrialization. We still need to limit our consumption and energy use to fix our planet.
What’s the Point of Bringing Back Extinct Animals?
As I spent this week diving into the science behind de-extinction, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a certain quote from Jurassic Park, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. A good amount of the information out there about this breakthrough feels like it was taken from a paragraph written by a science fiction author. This technology is one of those one-in-a-lifetime advancements that boggles the mind of those who existed before it was possible — an incredible leap forward that has the potential to alter Earth as we understand it — but what’s the point of advancement if it isn’t used for good?
Thankfully, the real-world scientists on this project have paid much more attention to potential benefits than did the fictional ones of Michael Crichton’s universe. In fact, one of the key inspirations cited by the company is the restoration of “what has been lost or is at risk of being lost”. The team is optimistic about the wide applications of this new technological advancement, believing that much of their work will result in rewilding efforts, genetic modification to improve the viability of extant animals, and ecosystem balancing.
It seems that their research has already had an important connection in helping elephants — EEHV prevention. EEHV, also known as Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus, causes a significant proportion of deaths in both Asian and African elephant populations in captivity. As Colossal worked towards completing the genome of the wooly mammoth, the team was able to identify strains of the disease, and has even begun to apply “CRISPR gene editing technology to hone in on the genetic mutations that create susceptibility to the herpesvirus in elephants and eliminating those genetic susceptibilities”. They haven’t found a cure yet, but the team appears to be confident that their research will lead to it.
To those worried about the practicality of such an expensive undertaking, it appears thus far that their plans are more than just their mission statement, seeking to advance the field of genetics and the sciences that touch it for the better of Earth and humanity.
When Are We Going to Get to See Dodos, Tasmanian Tigers, and Wooly Mammoths?
Realistically, the successful de-extinction of these species and others could be anywhere between a few years from now or a few decades. At this point, though, it’s hard to know for sure. As I’ve mentioned before in previous articles, scientists do not like predicting future timelines. There are far too many variables at play here that any sort of prediction has the potential to be way off. Granted, Colossal has stated that the wooly mammoth will be back by 2027, though they’ve yet to provide an estimate on the dodo, Tasmanian tiger, or any other creature on their to-do list.
Once successfully produced, they’ll be released into their native habitats. But the conservation and restoration won’t end at this juncture. To truly and sustainably de-extinct a species, there will need to be a long period of monitoring and care, not unlike how scientists currently steward endangered species. So, even if Colossal manages to hit its deadline, it may take much longer to have them accessible to folks like us who want to visit them. The process will be a delicate one, requiring a fair deal of protection and care before the de-extinct species are established and stable enough to be bothered by ecotourists.
In the pursuit of de-extinction, we find ourselves on the brink of a Jurassic Park future, yet with a crucial difference — a commitment to learning from both the successes and mistakes of the past and from the warnings of science fiction. The potential for beneficial applications is being well considered — and even placed as the primary objective for this research. Time will reveal how this new technology will be applied to aid our planet, and its species, and mitigate the harm we’ve managed to cause in these past few hundred years. After the investigation I undertook this week, I can’t help but feel optimistic. It’ll never just be about ‘whether or not we could,’ but about the conscientious and purposeful ‘how’ that will shape the legacy of our scientific advancements.
Cross-posted from Medium.