You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
Could technology taking centre stage in the US save animals from extinction? A Dallas biotech start-up wants to resurrect the woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger, and even the dodo. Colossal Biosciences, founded in 2021, describes itself as a de-extinction company aiming to reverse human-inflicted biodiversity loss and bring additional species to the planet.
After closing a funding round in January, it's now raised around $225mn from investors, including the CIA and celebrities such as the Winklevoss twins, Paris Hilton, and Chris Hemsworth. But scientists and conservationists warn that the effects of de-extinction could be unpredictable. There are questions over the ethics of releasing resurrected species into altered habitats and ecosystems, as well as bringing genetically altered embryos to term.
The return species will be lookalikes, rather than genetic copies of their originals. To remake the dodo, which went extinct due to hunting in the 17th century, Colossal will alter the genome of the Nicobar pigeon. For the replica mammoth, which will be tuskless to deter poachers, they'll tap into the genetic code of the Asian elephant.
There's only one precedent for de-extinction, the Pyrenean ibex, or bukardo, declared extinct in the year 2000. Three years later, DNA from frozen bukardo skin was cloned and placed inside a goat by scientists working with the Spanish government. But the resulting kid died just seven minutes after being born making it the only animal to have gone extinct twice.
Efforts to clone species that are endangered, but not yet extinct, have had greater success. Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret, was born in late 2020 using genes from a female ferret called Willa, who had died more than 30 years prior and had no living descendants.
The project was a partnership that included Revive and Restore, a Bay Area biotech conservation group, Hex and Company, ViaGen Pets & Equine, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Earlier in 2020 those same players had cloned a Przewalski horse called Kurt, who is created from the frozen DNA of another horse stored since 1980.
Back in Texas, Colossal Biosciences is generating significant publicity and investment. The company is now reported to be valued at more than $1bn. But concern is also growing that de-extinction projects like this could divert funds from conservation programmes, such as those that brought Elizabeth Ann and Kurt into the world. And with 42,000 living species threatened with extinction right now, the race to save them is on.