It makes sense. Destroying entire species will require breakthroughs in various fields: gene editing and sequencing, artificial wombs, and more. Lamm hopes that all technologies developed by Colossal will have potential applications and paying customers in human healthcare. “This is the foundation of our technology strategy,” he said.
The founders had other ideas for potential revenue streams. One is a way for scientists to quickly analyze gene-edited cells and check that the edits are working as expected. He’s also excited about some of the work that Colossal’s embryology team is doing. “We think this has broad application in all of IVF,” he said. “But it’s unclear whether we’ll spin off an IVF company. Maybe we’ll just license the technology or something like that.”
Clearly, the potential for new spin-off companies is part of the reason venture capitalists are excited about de-extinction. But the flow of money to biotech could subtly reshape how we think about conservation: Does it leave things undisturbed, or, as Colossal intends to do, engineer species so they can survive in the world humans have created? Ronald Sandler, director of the Ethics Institute and professor of philosophy at Northeastern University in Boston, said the flow of resources into the field could change the kinds of conservation practices people engage in.
“There’s a new set of potential tools here, a new set of possibilities and opportunities,” Sandler said. What’s unclear is whether these new tools actually solve why we’re in the midst of a mass extinction event, or whether they’re just a technological panacea for the dangling problem that humans are consuming far more of the world’s resources than they should. . “There is a risk of losing sight of real problems that really need to be addressed,” Sandler said.
In addition to these thorny philosophical questions, Colossal must also grapple with the scientific challenge of resurrecting extinct birds. Birds present some unique challenges to extinct species, because access to genetic information inside bird embryos is much more difficult. Instead, Colossal plans to edit the cells that become egg or sperm cells and then implant them into developing bird embryos. The bird will then grow up in egg or sperm cells that contain the genetic formula for a functional dodo — or something close to that function. Scientists can then breed the birds, hoping to eventually produce a dodo-like bird.
The dodo study builds on the work of Beth Shapiro, Colossal’s chief paleogeneticist and a professor at UC Santa Cruz. In 2022, Shapiro generated the first complete dodo genome. “Right or wrong, the dodo is a symbol of man-made extinction,” Shapiro said. Reviving the dodo will mean conducting research on its closest relative, the Nicobar pigeon, which lives on the islands and coastlines of Southeast Asia.
But the hope is that these projects can have benefits that go far beyond a single species. “In the process, we’re going to examine some compelling things about life both broadly and deeply,” said Tom Chi, founder of climate-focused venture capital fund and mega-investor At One Ventures. He cites the startup’s work on a vaccine against the deadly elephant endothelial herpesvirus (EEHV) as an example of how conservation efforts could still benefit from Colossal’s work, even if it doesn’t bring mammoths back to life.
“We’re living in the old days of conservation now,” Chi said. “Honestly, we’re not winning that race at all.” Developing new tools like de-extinction could eventually help conservation, he says, to address the massive loss of species currently happening on Earth. “In a thoughtful way, we can be people who really care about the health of our planet and really build deep compassion for other people and for others.”
perhaps. But there is also a danger that de-extinction technology is simply a modern take on an age-old conservation problem: Some charismatic species are saved while others in nature are burned. But in fact, it’s not. Gene sequencing is a powerful tool to help conservationists, and we desperately need to learn more about the animal kingdom. It might just be the least moonshot part of Colossal’s work that ends up having the most impact.
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