De-extinction project by Colossal aims to resurrect woolly mammoths through Asian elephants, the mammoth’s closest modern-day descendant. The company hopes to create similar extinct species through genetic engineering which can withstand Arctic temperatures.
Colossal will edit elephant DNA, engineering genes for mammoth traits like dense, thick, and heavy fat, giving them a coat that would maintain warmth in cold temperatures. Production of such embryos will help them bring thousands of elephant-mammoth hybrids to life, which they plan on transporting to the Siberian tundra.
The team will retrieve skin cells from Asian Elephants and reprogramme them into more versatile stem cells that carry mammoth DNA. Genes specific to mammoth’s dense hair will be extracted by comparing mammoth genomes recovered from animals from the permafrost. These embryos would then be planted in a surrogate mother or an artificial womb.
Researchers hope this process will birth their first set of calves in six years. Colossal has successfully raised $75m from investors for this particular project.
Ben Lamm, CEO and founder of Colossal Biosciences, regarding the guaranteed success of this project said: “we have all the technology in hand for other species, but a lot of these techniques have not yet been applied to marsupials. We will need to develop marsupial stem cells and then a lot of reproductive technologies to turn those cells back into living animals.”
He further added: “there are no real science gates in the process. There are just engineering challenges to ensure the technologies work at scale such as ex-utero gestational devices.
Why should Woolly Mammoths come back?
While bringing 10-thousand-year-old beasts back on this Earth is ambitious, Colossal argues that there are 10 core goals for reviving the mammoth. This will slow down the melting of the arctic permafrost, prevent the emission of greenhouse gasses trapped within the permafrost layer-up to 600 million tons of net carbon annually and revert now-over-shrubbed forests into natural arctic grasslands, which help with carbon emissions.
Furthermore, the team of researchers believe the resurrection will restore the mammoth steppe and foster an ecosystem that can maintain its defenses against climate change. Mammoths will help them understand dominant traits among cold-resistant genomes and save modern elephants from mass extinction.
Colossal hopes this project will help them establish a proven link between genetic sciences and climate change. In addition, it will equip nature with resilience against humanity’s adverse effects on vital ecosystems along with drive advancements in multiplex CRISPR editing.
Mr. Lamm commented: “in addition to the benefits of rewilding and helping to balance an ecosystem that mankind had a hand in its degradation, Colossal is developing marsupial-focused conservation and gestational technologies that will support broader marsupial conservation efforts.”
He further explained: “for example, we are developing an exo-pouch that the joeys will further develop in post birth. The exo-pouches can be utilized for existing marsupial species such as the Tasmanian devil. The Tasmanian devil gives birth to 20 or 30 joeys.”
“However, the mother has only four nipples, so only a handful of babies survive. Our exo-pouch we are developing for the thylacine project could be incredibly helpful to conservationists working with the Tasmanian devils to take those additional 20+ joeys and give them a place to incubate further.”
In addition, Colossal is working on full-stage artificial wombs that can help in full ex-utero development all the way from embryos. These gestational technologies alone will be transformational for marsupial conservation, the CEO informed TrillMag.
Do they really need to come back?
The presence of woolly mammoths 10,000 years later will certainly be fantastic. However, Colossal’s project has raised some ethical questions. Critics have argued whether de-extinction is a cost-effective method to protect biodiversity or prevent climate change. Considering the project’s expenditure, critics argue that there are possibly more cost-effective ways to save animals from extinction than bringing them back to life.
“There is definitely a list of animals that the planet will benefit from their de-extinction. Right now we are exclusively focused on the Woolly Mammoth and Thylacine de-extinction projects”, Mr Lamm revealed.
“As we make progress on these two projects, we will constantly evaluate other species where de-extinction efforts can create a positive impact on a degraded ecosystem and advance conservation science”, the tech entrepreneur informed.
Some environmentalists maintain that if the de-extinction project is successful, species threatened by extinction will not receive urgent attention and care.
As profoundly planned as this plan is, there is no guarantee that it will be successful. Ethicists say that this project might lead to a waste of resources.
Responding to the critics who called Colossal on playing god, Mr. Lamm said: “Regardless of your philosophical or religious views, I think that wherever you fall on that spectrum, we can all agree that we all have a duty to protect this planet. This planet is our spaceship in this universe right now, so we have a duty to protect that and everything that exists on it.”
“When you lose a keystone species, the entire ecosystem falls apart, whether that’s a herbivore or carnivore”, he further added. Mr. Lamm, explaining the position of Colossal said: “what we’re doing is trying to build better tools to give modern day conservationists a winning chance against what humanity is currently doing.”
“We ‘play God’ every day when we affect the global temperature, destroy an ecosystem, or eradicate a species like we did with the Thylacine. We should work to restore what we have messed up”, stated Mr. Lamm.