February 24, 2024

Various forms of media portray the concept of cloning as a futuristic figment of humanity’s imagination. However, an ambitious startup company thinks that they can make this a reality, and they are starting with the dodo bird.

Colossal Biosciences is a genetic engineering company that has garnered massive investments after claiming their intentions to reconstruct and clone the DNA of the dodo bird, the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger. Scientists involved in the project are using DNA recovered from permafrost and attempting to use DNA from the Nicobar pigeon, the closest living relative of the dodo bird.

Though the company has substantial support, Dr. Patrick Schacht, professor of biochemistry, is highly skeptical of the project’s plausibility.

“Even in permafrost, [DNA] is going to slowly decay over time,” Schacht said. “You’re talking about stuff that’s so heavily fragmented that you present a lot of issues currently. And one of the things that’s debatable as to whether it will be ever surmountable is the errors and being able to interpret between the errors.”

Schacht used a metaphor to explain the imprecise nature of the cloning process.

“I always think of the ‘Jurassic Park’ scene where they tried to explain how all this would work,” Schacht said. “They give a hypothetical model of taking DNA from a frog and fill in the missing gaps because it’s adaptable. And the difficulty is it’s far more complicated than that.

“Think of it as if you’re trying to put together a puzzle, and you don’t have all the pieces. Well, if you have the picture on the box, even if you don’t have all the pieces, you might be able to say, ‘I know this piece goes here, and I know that piece goes there because I’ve got the picture on the box.’ Well, if you take the picture on the box and run it through a filter that takes the photograph and makes it an impressionist painting, you can still kind of do that. You can get some information, but you’re not going to get 100% there.”

Schacht explained that in an animal with several billion nucleotides (units that form the basic structure of DNA), even a 0.001% error rate can be fatal, as that is equal to millions of missing or misplaced nucleotides.

Not only would these millions of nucleotides be in the wrong place, but without a living dodo bird as a reference, there is no way for the scientists to know which ones are creating problems.

Schacht said he believes that we are nowhere near this kind of technology and argues that many investors do not believe in it either.

“They didn’t get this out of an index fund — they got this out of a bunch of wealthy people who know there’s a 90% chance this fails miserably,” Schacht said, referring to Colossal Biosciences. “If it fails, they’ve got investments in 100 other places as well. So, they’re OK betting their money on it.”

Whether the process works, the moral ambiguity of the question is up for debate among the scientific community.

“A lot of people believe that this is wrong, and a few people believe it’s OK,” said Mirna Ramis, graduate biomedical major.

“I believe it is OK because you can use DNA from the entire species, which makes this much better than other methods. Also, DNA can be used to make new plants that can be used in a lot of different fields.”

Kobe Cortez, junior environmental science major, argued that though DNA alteration is nothing new, bringing back an extinct species is largely unethical.

“Human scientists have been altering DNA for decades to breed specific animals, so this is not an entirely new topic,” Cortez said.

“However, to bring an extinct species back to modern times? One would need to assume what it primarily fed on and its habitat to live healthily. Though, in all honesty, it would most likely be kept inside a lab. An artificially born creature forced to endure many experiments until it dies seems very unethical.”

Another issue is how these ancient animals can reacclimate to modern ecosystems.

While Schacht believes that a few dodo birds in zoos or enclosed habitats will likely have little effect on the surrounding environment, there will probably be issues if they are released into the wild.

“Ecology has proven again and again that we don’t understand it,” Schacht said. “There’s this perennial issue of invasive species, and every time we try to do one thing, there are unintended consequences.”

However, Schacht does not attribute this environmental skepticism to the supposed weaker immune system and shorter lifespan of clones and instead refers to the commonly misinterpreted story of Dolly, a cloned sheep that lived only a few years.

“There’s a general issue that people misunderstand what cloning is and what the limits of cloning are,” Schacht said. “Dolly died of a virus that had an effect of causing cancer that sheep throughout the research facility were also dying from that were not genetically modified in any way, shape or form.

“So we don’t know the results of how long she would have lived.”

Even so, Dolly was created using a living reference, and Ramis argues that our technology has not yet reached the point where scientists can recreate animals and plants.

Schacht speculates that rather than funding the dodo bird’s rebirth, investors are dedicating their money toward improving gene synthesis, the process of creating and assembling nucleotides to form genes.

“The technology that will be developed in the process will be very valuable,” Schacht said. “It will be interesting to see because gene synthesis has not accelerated as fast as gene sequencers because they haven’t had a need for it.”

Cortez argues that whether it is the technology or something else, there is an ulterior motive at play and that the product of their research will backfire. He stated that it is unethical for humans to try and resurrect these creatures.

“It was human ignorance that made the creatures extinct,” Cortez said. “Now we must live with the mistakes.”

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