A new company with a wild mission: Bring back the woolly mammoth
By Carl Zimmer
A team of scientists and entrepreneurs announced recently that they have started a new company to genetically resurrect the woolly mammoth.
The company, named Colossal, aims to place thousands of these magnificent beasts back on the Siberian tundra, thousands of years after they went extinct.
“This is a major milestone for us,” said George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School, who for eight years has been leading a small team of moonlighting researchers developing the tools for reviving mammoths. “It’s going to make all the difference in the world.”
The company, which has received $15 million in initial funding, will support research in Church’s lab and carry out experiments in labs of their own in Boston and Dallas.
A former researcher in Church’s lab, Eriona Hysolli, will oversee the new company’s efforts to edit elephant DNA, adding genes for mammoth traits like dense hair and thick fat for withstanding cold. The researchers hope to produce embryos of these mammoth-like elephants in a few years, and ultimately produce entire populations of the animals.
Other researchers are deeply skeptical that Colossal will pull off such a feat. And if Colossal does manage to produce baby mammoth-like elephants, the company will face serious ethical questions. Is it humane to produce an animal whose biology we know so little about? Who gets to decide whether they can be set loose, potentially to change the ecosystems of tundras in profound ways?
“There’s tons of trouble everyone is going to encounter along the way,” said Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of “How to Clone a Mammoth.”
The idea behind Colossal first emerged into public view in 2013, when Church sketched it out in a talk at the National Geographic Society.
At the time, researchers were learning how to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species based on fragments of DNA retrieved from fossils. It became possible to pinpoint the genetic differences that set ancient species apart from their modern cousins and to begin to figure out how those differences in DNA produced differences in their bodies.
Church, who is best known for inventing ways of reading and editing DNA, wondered if he could effectively revive an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living relative. Because Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that lived about 6 million years ago, Church thought it might be possible to modify the genome of an elephant to produce something that would look and act like a mammoth.
Beyond scientific curiosity, he argued, revived woolly mammoths could help the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America where the animals once grazed is rapidly warming and releasing carbon dioxide.
“Mammoths are hypothetically a solution to this,” Church argued in his talk.
Today the tundra is dominated by moss. But when woolly mammoths were around, it was largely grassland. Some researchers have argued that woolly mammoths were ecosystem engineers, maintaining the grasslands by breaking up moss, knocking down trees and providing fertilizer with their droppings.
Russian ecologists have imported bison and other living species to a preserve in Siberia they’ve called Pleistocene Park, in the hopes of turning the tundra back to grassland. Church argued that resurrected woolly mammoths would be able to do this more efficiently. The restored grassland would keep the soil from melting and eroding, he argued, and might even lock away heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Church’s proposal attracted a lot of attention from the press but little funding beyond $100,000 from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Church’s lab piggybacked mammoth research on to other, better-funded experiments.
“This set of tools can be used for many purposes, whether it’s de-extinction or recoding the human genome,” Hysolli said.
Analyzing the genomes of woolly mammoths collected from fossils, Hysolli and her colleagues drew up a list of the most important differences between the animals and elephants. They zeroed in on 60 genes that their experiments suggest are important to the distinctive traits of mammoths, such as hair, fat and the woolly mammoth’s distinctively high-domed skull.
“Frankly, I was planning on slogging along at a slow pace,” Church said.
But in 2019, he was contacted by Ben Lamm, the founder of the Texas-based artificial intelligence company Hypergiant, who was intrigued by reports of the de-extinction idea.
Lamm visited Church’s lab, and the two hit it off.
“After about a day of being in the lab and spending a lot of time with George, we were pretty passionate on pursuing this,” Lamm said.
Lamm began setting up Colossal to support Church’s work, all the way from tinkering with DNA to eventually placing “a functional mammoth,” as Hysolli calls it, in the wild.
The company’s initial funding comes from investors ranging from Climate Capital, a private equity firm that backs efforts to lower carbon emissions, to the Winklevoss twins, known for their battles over Facebook and investments in Bitcoin.
The scientists will try to make an elephant embryo with its genome modified to resemble an ancient mammoth. To do this, the scientists will need to remove DNA from an elephant egg and replace it with the mammoth-like DNA.
But no one has ever harvested eggs from an elephant. In case it doesn’t work, Hysolli and her colleagues will also investigate turning ordinary elephant tissue into stem cells, which could possibly then be coaxed to develop into embryos in the lab.
Heather Bushman, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, said that whatever benefits mammoths might have to the tundra will need to be weighed against the possible suffering that they might experience in being brought into existence by scientists.
“You don’t have a mother for a species that — if they are anything like elephants — has extraordinarily strong mother-infant bonds that last for a very long time,” she said. “Once there is a little mammoth or two on the ground, who is making sure that they’re being looked after?”