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Return from extinction: the plan to bring dodo birds back to Mauritius

A bold collaboration between geneticists and conservationists plans to bring back the extinct dodo and reintroduce it to its natural habitat in Mauritius.

Colossal Biosciences, a US-based biotechnology and genetic engineering company seeking to reverse the extinction of several species, including the woolly mammoth, has partnered with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) to find a suitable location for the large birds that don’t fly.

The dodo has been extinct since 1681; a combination of predatism by humans and by human-introduced animals led to its downfall, turning it into a classic case of extinction.

But, according to the partners, its return to Mauritius could benefit the immediate environment of the dodo and other species.

Colossal Biosciences first announced its intention to resurrect the dodo in January 2023.

It’s still unclear exactly when the company will be able to accomplish this feat, but new details about how it plans to recreate the species have been revealed.

The dodo’s complete genome was sequenced by Beth Shapiro, chief paleogeneticist at Colossal. In addition, the company claims to have sequenced the genome of the solitaire, an extinct relative of the dodo from Rodrigues Island, near Mauritius, and the Nicobar pigeon, the dodo’s closest living relative, which resides on islands in Southeast Asia. covering the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Geneticists at Colossal have discovered that cells that act as precursors for ovaries or tests in the Nicobar pigeon can successfully grow into a chicken embryo. They are now researching to see whether these cells (called primordial germ cells, or PGCs) can turn into sperm and eggs.

This is a vital step in creating hybrid animals through breeding. Scientists have already introduced PGCs to create a chicken sired by a duck – for which a duck embryo was injected into chicken PGCs, producing an adult duck with the sperm of a rooster. He then crossed paths with a hen, which gave birth to a chick.

Colossal plans to follow a similar path.

First, it will compare the genomes of the dodo and solitaire with those of the Nicobar pigeon to identify how they differ. Next, the CGPs of a Nicobar will be edited to express the physical characteristics of a dodo.

The edited PGCs will then be inserted into the embryos of a sterile chicken and rooster. After insertion, the hen and rooster will be able to reproduce and, in theory, their offspring will be similar to the dodo thanks to the pigeon’s hybrid DNA in their reproductive systems.

“Physically, it will not be possible to discern the restored dodo from what we know about the dodo’s appearance,” Matt James, Colossal’s animal director, said in an email.

James described the project as “an incredible innovation engine for avian genetics, genomics and cell biology,” in part because “most of the technologies we use for cloning in mammals don’t exist in birds today.”

He declined to set a timeline on when the first embryo will be created.

Building a new home for the dodo

While the Colossal laboratory continues its investigation, an MWF team will work on building a model nest.

Vikash Tatayah, the foundation’s director of conservation, said MWF approached Colossal earlier this year about a partnership and is planning a feasibility study on where best to relocate Colossal’s birds when they hatch.

“Mauritius is not a big island, it is 60 by 30 kilometers,” said Tatayah. “Much of it has already been replaced by sugar cane, buildings, villages (and) reservoirs.”

The “most ideal location does not exist,” he added, saying that each potential location has pros and cons and that they all have factors such as predators, poaching and other human interference.

The Gorges do Rio Negro National Park, with its pockets of restored forest, the nearby Ilha Redonda nature reserves and the islet of Aigrettes are sites being considered.

The island and islet are not home to natural predators, he explained, while on the mainland, invasive species, including rats, feral cats, pigs, dogs, monkeys, herpests and crows, may need to be “excluded, rehoused or even controlled.” so that Colossal’s dodo can survive.

On the other hand, Tatayah said the foundation would like a location where the dodos could be visible to the public, and that Redonda Island and the islet of Aigrettes are currently uninhabited.

There is still the possibility of the dodo being reintroduced in several locations, he added.

Once human factors and extraneous predators are controlled, Tatayah is less concerned about how the dodo will reintegrate into its environment. “(It) was coexisting and co-evolving with other birds, other plants and reptiles… so I can’t imagine them being competitive,” he said.

In fact, there could even be tangential benefits, he argued, citing “mutualistic relationships that have broken down since the loss of the dodo.”

The bird’s large beak is an indicator that it consumed fruits with large seeds, he explained, and the dodo played an important role in dispersing the seeds. Some of these plant species are threatened or highly threatened, he added, with one hypothesis being that the seeds are no longer sufficiently dispersed and prepared for germination without the dodo and other large extinct species (another being the giant tortoise of Mauritius).

“I think (the dodo) will be a big bonus for ecosystem restoration,” Tatayah said.

While he agrees that the dodo could help with seed dispersal, Julian Hume, an avian paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London who has studied the bird, is cautious.

“Despite being one of the most famous birds in the world, we still know virtually nothing about the dodo, so it is impossible to know how it interacted with its environment,” Hume said in an email.

“The Colossal idea is a good one,” he added, although “due to the complexity of recreating a species from DNA, even if it were possible, (it) could only result in a dodo-type creature. It will then take years of selective breeding to transform a small pigeon into a large flightless bird. Remember, it took nature millions of years for this to happen to the dodo.”

As for studying the bird once reintroduced, “at best, Colossal can only produce a bird with some dodo-like qualities, and a bird that has no inherent idea of ​​how to live in the wild, so it would be quite naive to base any conclusions about behavior or other life story characters (in him),” Hume said.

Why bring the dodo back?

A persistent question is “why?” Why gather resources to recreate a long-dead, flightless bird and introduce it to an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean?

Ben Lamm, CEO and co-founder of Colossal, argued that “restoring the dodo gives us the opportunity to create a ‘conservation optimism’ that will hopefully inspire people around the world, specifically young people, at a time when climate change, biodiversity loss and politics can make things seem hopeless.”

He added that the dodo project’s pioneering techniques could help restore other bird species.

Tatayah believes the high-profile project could give a boost to wider conservation efforts in Mauritius. “In our experience, when you start saving a species, it gives momentum to protecting and restoring habitats and ecosystems,” he said.

“We are interested in the conservation of the entire ecosystem. We don’t want to find the dodo alone in the field,” added Tatayah.

The MWF director said that, in any case, the return of the dodo “will not happen overnight… we are probably talking about a decade”. The birds would be raised in the US and would need to be imported, he explained. Citing the legal and political dimension of the project, he said that “the years could increase”.

Tatayah emphasized that emerging reverse de-extinction technologies should not provide an outlet for tried and tested conservation methods – particularly for threatened species – describing them as “another tool in the toolbox… but not the tool that replaces the entire toolbox ”.

Hume agreed, adding that the huge investment made by Colossal could be used elsewhere to help save many other “borderline” species through conventional conservation.

The paleontologist is not against the extinction movement, but prefers to see it applied to recently extinct species, such as the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), or to species with unviable populations, such as the northern white rhino, which has only two females remaining . . (Colossal Biosciences is conducting research into both.)

“The dodo, despite being an unfortunate case of human-caused extinction, has really had its day,” Hume said. However, our continued curiosity is difficult to quench.

“I have been studying the dodo for many years and there is still a lot to learn about this enigmatic bird,” he added. “If it were ever recreated, I would certainly be first in line to see it.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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