Woolly mammoth, animal of the future?
What You Need To Know
- In what sounds like a plot straight out of a science fiction movie, a new company called Colossal is aiming to re-create the extinct, ice-age woolly mammoth using modified DNA
- The company is headed by George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, and Ben Lamm, a tech entrepreneur
- Because the DNA that scientists have extracted from woolly mammoths is frozen in permafrost and not intact, Church and his team are attempting to edit the genome of modern elephants to create an animal resembling the woolly mammoth
- The researchers hope to produce Colossal’s first calves in four to six years, but Colossal’s plan has its share of critics and ethical concerns
In what sounds like a plot straight out of a science fiction movie, a new company called Colossal is aiming to re-create the extinct, ice-age mammals using modified DNA.
The company is headed by George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, and Ben Lamm, a tech entrepreneur. Colossal announced Monday that it received $15 million in initial funding from investors who include the environmental private equity firm Climate Capital and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin brothers who are well known for suing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, accusing him of stealing their idea to create the popular social network.
Because the DNA that scientists have extracted from woolly mammoths is frozen in permafrost and not intact, Church and his team are attempting to edit the genome of modern elephants to create an animal resembling the woolly mammoth, giving it traits that include insulating fat and thick hair that would help it survive in the harsh cold. They, however, don’t plan to give it tusks to prevent it from being targeted by ivory poachers.
The researchers hope to produce Colossal’s first calves in four to six years. To reach that point, the scientists will have to remove DNA from an elephant egg and replace it with the modified DNA, and then use elephants as surrogates. In case they can’t pull that off, they’re also exploring the possibility of developing embryos in the lab.
Church, who is known for inventing ways to read and edit DNA, first went public with the idea in 2013. Reviving an extinct species seemed more within reach after the invention of the revolutionary gene editing tool CRISPR, and George’s team has already been at work on the woolly mammoth project for years.
“It will walk like a Woolly Mammoth, look like one, sound like one, but most importantly it will be able to inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the Mammoth’s extinction,” says Colossal’s website.
The goal is to release the woolly mammoths, which went extinct 4,000 years ago, back on the Siberian tundra, their natural habitat. Colossal believes the large beasts will help combat climate change.
Unlike when the woolly mammoths roamed, the tundra today is dominated by moss instead of grassland. Some scientists believe mammoths and other large, grazing animals helped maintain the grasslands by knocking down trees, stomping down grass and compacting snow, which helped keep the earth frozen underneath. That sheet of permafrost helped trap carbon dioxide, which today is fueling climate change.
“[I]f the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem could be revived, it could help in reversing the rapid warming of the climate and more pressingly, protect the arctic’s permafrost — one of the world’s largest carbon reservoirs,” Colossal says.
But Colossal’s plan has its share of critics.
Some are skeptical the company will succeed. And even if they do, would they have truly made the woolly mammoth?
“First of all, you're not going to get a mammoth,” Love Dalén, professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, told CNN.
“We, of course, have very little clue about what genes make a mammoth a mammoth,” Dalen added. “We know a little bit, but we certainly don't know anywhere near enough.”
There are also ethical questions. Among them, is it inhumane to use living elephants as surrogates to give birth to a genetically engineered mammoth? And who would decide whether it’s appropriate to release the animals, which could significantly change the ecosystems of tundras?
Other scientists, meanwhile, argue there’s no evidence that the woolly mammoths would have any effect on climate change.
But some still welcome the research, saying it could lead to advancements that might prevent endangered species from going extinct.