A patchwork dodo is not a dodo

Somebody has been watching too much Jurassic Park. They should read the original novel, which was a badly written Luddite pot-boiler with a bad take on genetic technology that emphasized the horrible ways technology would inevitably go wrong (that was a tiresome theme in practically all Michael Crichton novels), while the movies just highlighted the glorious resurrection of really cool animals. I guess the latest movie has hordes of perfectly healthy, vigorous dinosaurs swarming across the American West, as if that could happen.

In yet another George Church production, his company, Colossal Biosciences, proposes to resurrect the dodo, just as he said he was going to bring back the mammoth and thylacine. He hasn’t accomplished any of it. I’ll go out on a very thick limb and say he’s never going to succeed. The procedure, using CRISPR to incrementally patch dodo genes into an extant bird species, is fundamentally flawed.

To create a dodo from such genetic information, the company plans to try to modify the bird’s closest living relative, the brightly colored Nicobar pigeon, turning it step by step into a dodo and possibly “re-wilding” the animal in its native habitat.

Colossal has not yet created any kind of animal. It’s still working on developing the necessary processes. And making a dodo might not even be possible. That’s because it is hard to predict how many DNA changes will be needed to transform the Nicobar pigeon into a big-beaked, three-foot-tall dodo.

The dodo had a full, functioning, integrated genome that evolved gradually under a regime of continual selection — every intermediate was viable. Colossal’s approach is to splice a few dodo genes into a pigeon, raise it up, splice in a few more genes, etc. Those dodo genes evolved in a dodo genome. Gene A was in a cooperative relationship with gene B in the dodo, but you’ve just popped gene A into a genome that has a very different version of pigeon gene B. The gene you want to insert might be seriously deleterious in a pigeon context, and you don’t know what the relationship is. The dodo genes might also be optimized for a completely different environment, yet you’re trying to make them viable in lab-bred animals.

It’s insane. They’re going to plunk a few ancient genes into some poor pigeon and declare victory, but all they’re going to do is produce a sad fat flightless bird that is totally maladapted for everywhere, not a dodo at all, but a weirdly warped mutant pigeon. Good luck getting Chris Pratt to herd the flock around the landscape.

At least the dodo is only three feet tall…I can’t imagine what kind of botchwork monstrosity they’re going to build out of elephant stock. And they’re talking about “rewilding” these animals! The world they were adapted to no longer exists, these mutant freaks will not be able to thrive anywhere, and it’s pure fantasy to imagine they can let some loose in some environment that doesn’t want them, where the forces that drove the original extinction still exist, and get a supportable natural population. These are not serious ideas.

But they’ve got serious money.

The two-year-old startup also said today that it had raised a further $150 million in funding (bringing the total it’s raised to $225 million)—some of which will go to a new effort around bird genomics.

How do they do that? Easy. It’s all hype. They’re building on the flashy, fictional pseudoscience plotted by Jurassic Park, with an audience of stupid rich people who are impressed by CGI and confuse it with reality. Hey, if you can sell Bitcoin, you can sell fantasy animals that don’t exist to people with too much money. They even admit it.

Colossal’s investors include the billionaire Thomas Tull, the CIA’s venture capital arm, and the prominent biotech venture capitalist Robert Nelsen. Nelsen invested in the company because de-extinction “is just really cool,” he said in an email. “Mammoths and direwolves are cool.”

Oh god. Billionaires are so fucking stupid. All this money, pouring into an absurd project, and what are they going to do with it? It’s all about profit in the minds of the people throwing cash at it.

Because there isn’t much money to be made in conservation, how Colossal will ever turn a profit is another evolving question. One Colossal executive told MIT Technology Review that the company could sell tickets to see its animals, and Lamm believes the technologies needed to create the mammoth or the dodo will have other commercial uses.

Conservation isn’t profitable, but you know what is? A $225 million freak show, with dismal mutant animals in cages. Pleistocene Park! Yeah, that’s the ticket! The concept made money in that movie and book written by a guy who hated science, so let’s try that!

I knew that venture capitalists were evil and stupid, but it’s disappointing that so many highly trained molecular biologists are being sucked into this futile endeavor by all the hypetrain money flowing into it. And George Church — he used to be a well-regarded Smart Guy, but now his reputation is going to be as an ethically-challenged PT Barnum.


  1. weylguy says

    But would the mutant dodo be as tasty as the ones that were wiped out by British sailors? KFC wants to know.

  2. jo1storm says


    According to Dan Simmons book “Olympos”, they’ll taste like vultures.


    Wikipedia quote for one of the “just there for the background flavor” groups:

    ARNists use recombinant DNA techniques to resurrect long-dead and prehistoric animals.

    Main characters never meet any of them but they eat one of prehistoric giant birds.

  3. says

    …you can sell fantasy animals that don’t exist to people with too much money.

    Just like young earth creationists, especially Dumb Idiot Ham and his putrid attractions.

  4. christoph says

    “The world they were adapted to no longer exists, these mutant freaks will not be able to thrive anywhere…”

    Hey! Mutants have feelings too, you know.

  5. says

    The world they were adapted to no longer exists, these mutant freaks will not be able to thrive anywhere, and it’s pure fantasy to imagine they can let some loose in some environment that doesn’t want them, where the forces that drove the original extinction still exist, and get a supportable natural population.

    The other side of that coin: if they somehow did get a viable creature that could thrive and reproduce, it would, by definition, be an invasive species–one that invaded from another time. Yeah, don’t see what could go wrong there. As if we haven’t had enough problems with invasive species.
    Did these idiots even watch the movies? “Life finds a way,” yada yada yada? Hello?

  6. drsteve says

    I was just visiting San Francisco last week and earlier this week, spending a lot of time in the general vicinity of Cambrian Genomics, a Church-backed startup I worked for very briefly in 2014. The CEO played the Jurassic Park theme music as part of his lab tour, and also later turned out to have mental health issues to the point that he killed himself some nine or ten months after laying me off a month after I joined the company.
    I have no idea how much Church’s influence shaped the company culture that led to this kind of tragic outcome, but I was already well aware of him and dubious of his hype before working for Cambrian, and my experience there couldn’t help but give him more of a negative emotional association in my mind.

  7. asclepias says

    The Lazarus Project on steroids. Yes, there is a Lazarus Project that is not a television show. A group of researchers in France did manage to resurrect the bucardo (Pyrenean ibex), but it died soon after birth due to a lung malformation. I found it disturbing how many scientists seemed to start thinking along the lines of “Is it possible?” after the Jurassic Park movie came out. My first thought is always genetic diversity, followed by habitat. Some paper in Nature a few years ago seriously proposed “reintroducing” large ungulates like the wooly mammoth to North America. I had a hard time believing there were rational people out there who might take this drivel seriously, but clearly, there are.

  8. microraptor says

    At this point I don’t think that any of these companies actually intend to clone anything. They just want backer money flowing in and make up stories about how they’re totes gonna recreate an extinct species a few years from now.

  9. Hoosier Bluegill says

    the CIA’s venture capital arm

    Wait! The CIA has a venture capital arm? Or maybe that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency.

    Anyway, maybe they’ll accidentally create a mutant T. Rex (birds are dinosaurs, after all!) which will eat them and destroy their lab

  10. drsteve says

    I do still think Jurassic Park holds up as one of the great popcorn movies of both my youth and of Spielberg’s entire career (for starters basically every adult human character is amazingly well-cast and even the kids aren’t really all that annoying). One just has to appreciate it for what it is, a monster flick with very light sci fi gloss, and not take it too seriously.

  11. specialffrog says

    @weylguy: I don’t think the dodos were killed because they were tasty but because they were easy to kill.

  12. says

    as PZ said, “Oh god. Billionaires are so fucking stupid. ” To expand on that, the real problem is that they are greedy, meddling, murderous, ignorant Stupid!

  13. says

    @12 feralboy – you are right. But, then sometimes I think, based the way they treat the physical world, humans (in general) are a destructive ‘invasive species’.

  14. Jean says

    Hoosier Bluegill #10
    I was wondering if I was to only one who had the same reaction to a CIA venture arm. I guess it could make sense to fund some new tech but it’s hard to see what they’d want to do with dodos and mammoths. Unless they want to create Neanderthal soldiers or something…

  15. robert79 says

    “They should read the original novel, which was a badly written Luddite pot-boiler with a bad take on genetic technology …”

    It’s also a badly written Luddite pot-boiler with a bad take on mathematics!

    I read it when I was 16 and even at that age realised most of his “chaos theory” arguments were pure nonsense. Now, 25 years later, with a PhD in maths, I can only describe them as pure gobbledygook.

    Chaos theory shows that simple systems can have complex behaviour. As any idiot knows (except for the characters in Jurassic park) a biological system is anything but simple. You don’t need a mathematician to explain that, let alone have him be mauled by a T.Rex to make the point.

  16. timmyson says

    The whole point of the Ship of Theseus is that you’re replacing with identical parts. I’m picturing Inspector
    Gadget’s car popping different parts in and out to transform from the sports car into the minivan, but as a bird. It would be hilarious if you didn’t think of the poor birds’ suffering along the way, assuming he can produce a viable organism.

  17. microraptor says

    robert79 @18:

    What Crichton called Chaos Theory in Jurassic Park most people just call Murphy’s Law.

  18. says

    #18: I read it when I was in grad school, and the characterization of science students as being handed vast amounts of power was so far off the mark that I threw the book across the room.

  19. Jazzlet says

    They never seem to give any thought to the social needs of eg the mammoths they are proposing to recreate. If mammoths are anything like elephants – and we know they did live in herds – which take a relatively long time to mature, and do a lot of learning during that time, the lack of that learning from experienced herd members could by itself stymie any reintroduction to the wild. it is a cruel endeavour.

  20. John Morales says

    Seems to me the technology could be researched with species that remain extant; take two species with a known common ancestor and, from a dead specimen of one of them, extract the genome with which to generate its like from the other. It that could be done, it would be proof of concept, no?

    (After all, no live dodos around)

  21. wzrd1 says

    I can see it working.
    First, they’ll need intact DNA, as cut and paste into existing “relatives” is bullshit. Then, hope the mitochondria matches well with the nuclear DNA’s needs.
    Add in some unicorn farts and wish in one hand, while shitting in the other and be surprised at which hand gets filled first.
    But, they’ve yet again proved by replication what is surely a economic science law, a fool and their money has loads of friends on payday.

    Still, wiser an investment than I did earlier. Moved into a new apartment, saw a new neighbor struggling with a sectional’s love seat, so helped him move it – a few feet. It had a recliner built in that felt to be constructed of tungsten, lead and whatthefuckium. I promptly dropped in my knee, giving me a fine deep bruise of 3×5 inches.
    Note to self: actively avoid lifting things constructed of whatthefuckium… Pick up more Motrin and put the eyedrops in, lest both a leg fall off and an IOL uninstall itself in a fit of pique.
    And oh yeah, again, you’re 61, not 21, dammit!
    And don’t invest in these shysters, ya schlemiel.

  22. brightmoon says

    wzrd you need to be checked out by a Doctor bruises that large can be bad .My Sister’s leg got hit by a cricket ball decades ago and had a similar sized bruise. Iirc they put her on medication for a few days

  23. wzrd1 says

    @brightmoon, got plenty of military medical experience with this and worse. Given the usual meds, my aspirin and ibuprofen should do, with plenty of wretched walking to both keep mobile and keep clots small and bodily manageable.
    Dad may have raised a dummy, but he didn’t raise no fool. ;)

  24. unclefrogy says

    well it is probably more profitable then a real job. at least for the “founders” who are running the show!

  25. Dunc says

    From the link I dropped @ #22:

    In-Q-Tel (IQT), formerly Peleus and In-Q-It, is an American not-for-profit venture capital firm based in Arlington, Virginia. It invests in high-tech companies to keep the Central Intelligence Agency, and other intelligence agencies, equipped with the latest in information technology in support of United States intelligence capability.[2] The name “In-Q-Tel” is an intentional reference to Q, the fictional inventor who supplies technology to James Bond.[5]


    In-Q-Tel’s mission is to identify and invest in companies developing cutting-edge technologies that serve United States national security interests.

  26. StevoR says

    @2. weylguy : “But would the mutant dodo be as tasty as the ones that were wiped out by British sailors? KFC wants to know.”

    FWIW from the Dodo wikipage :

    Some early travellers found dodo meat unsavoury, and preferred to eat parrots and pigeons; others described it as tough, but good. Some hunted dodos only for their gizzards, as this was considered the most delicious part of the bird. Dodos were easy to catch, but hunters had to be careful not to be bitten by their powerful beaks.

    Source :https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodo#Relationship_with_humans

    It also seems the first to hunt them were Dutch not Brits not that that makes a huge deal of difference – especially for the birds.

  27. expatlurker says

    I’m making popcorn in anticipation of the “Dodo Park” movie, where dodos escape from their enclosure and run rampant. This will spin up so many memes, dodo chaos, dodos find a way, …

  28. astringer says

    Expatlurker: needs a theme tune to that their movie…

    I met him on the Monday and my heart stood still
    Dodo ron-ron-ron, Dodo ron-ron
    I ate some body but I left the bill

    I’ll get my coat.

  29. llewelly says

    Whatever happened to Dr Beth Shapiro’s project to bring back the Passenger Pigeon? It is described in great detail in her book (though she spends as much time on mammoths), and the project is also about a recently extinct famous pigeon, more recently extinct and much better known (scientifically, not popularly) than the dodo, and she’s quoted in the article, and the fate of said project ought to be relevant.

  30. StevoR says

    @ ^ llewelly : I’m not sure how its going but some quick googling did find this page on it here :


    Which seems to indicate its still going and also, notably, that they are looking at theecological implications of their work :

    Our research revealed the Passenger Pigeon isn’t simply a model species; it quite possibly is the most important species for the future of conserving the woodland biodiversity of the eastern United States. As a result, the project is now not only a model for pioneering de-extinction methods, but it offers a new opportunity to achieve long-term conservation goals for woodland forests in the eastern U.S.

    There also seems to be a complication with the famously huge numbers of the Passenger Pigeon paradoxically leading to low genetic diversity and, maybe, it somehow needed to exist in large flocks too? See :


    Incidentally, Colbert had this segment introducing the show with the dodo – at the start here despite the apparent title (1 min 9 secs long) so seems Pharyngula beat Colbert to it here again – albeit very different formats and takes on this.

  31. Pierce R. Butler says

    … splice a few dodo genes into a pigeon, raise it up, splice in a few more genes, etc.

    Does there not remain a single feather, bone, or the like from which to (possibly) extract actual 100% dodo genes?

  32. StevoR says

    @ ^ Pierce R. Butler :

    The only extant remains of dodos taken to Europe in the 17th century are a dried head and foot in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a foot once housed in the British Museum but now lost, a skull in the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum, and an upper jaw in the National Museum, Prague. The last two were rediscovered and identified as dodo remains in the mid-19th century.[107] Several stuffed dodos were also mentioned in old museum inventories, but none are known to have survived.

    Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodo#Physical_remains

    & also :

    Remains of over 300 dodos were found in the swamp, but only very few skull and wing bones among them, which may be explained by the upper bodies having been washed away or scavenged while the lower body was trapped, which is similar to the way many moa remains have been found in New Zealand marshes.[3] In 1889, Théodor Sauzier was commissioned to find more dodo remains in the Mare aux Songes. He was successful, and also found remains of other extinct species.[4] Twenty-six museums worldwide have significant holdings of dodo material, almost all found in the Mare aux Songes.

    Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mare_aux_Songes

    (Semi-translates as “Sea of Songs” myabe though not sure about francais for the last word – sounds like a place that belongs on the Moon!)

    Plus see also this news article : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mare_aux_Songes

    Which notes their DNA seqnce has been entirely sequenced though unpublished and is being worked on now.

    Or short version – Yes.

  33. Pierce R. Butler says

    StevoR @ #s 45-6 – Thanks for digging that up!

    Now all our Colossal Biosciences crew needs to do is perfect the regenesis of whole macro-organisms from centuries-dead DNA fragments – it shouldn’t take longer than the next JP sequel.

  34. consciousness razor says

    Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mare_aux_Songes

    (Semi-translates as “Sea of Songs” myabe though not sure about francais for the last word – sounds like a place that belongs on the Moon!)

    It means Sea of Dreams, or possibly ponderings or somesuch. (See here.) Relatedly, if you can’t sleep, you have insomnia, or another word for sleepwalking is somnambulation, for example.

    Songs is generally “chansons,” which is related to English words like “chant,” “enchant,” “incantation,” and so forth.