A start-up, Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences, made headlines earlier this week when the company announced an ambitious plan to create a “cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the woolly mammoth.” The scientists behind the initiative say their work could help reverse the effects of climate change and advance genetic engineering.
The DNA, collected from mammoth tusks, bones and other preserved body parts found in ice, will be sequenced to create an “elephant-mammoth hybrid” that looks like a furrier, larger elephant with smaller ears and a high-domed head.
“Never before has humanity been able to harness the power of this technology to rebuild ecosystems, heal our Earth and preserve its future through the repopulation of extinct animals,” says co-founder of the new firm, Ben Lamm.
Colossal, which has received at least $15 million from investors, has set out to edit the Asian elephant’s DNA, inserting traits from the woolly mammoth. Then, using the same process that created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, scientists aim to create a hybrid woolly mammoth-Asian elephant embryo.
A new form of ecological conservation
Woolly mammoths went extinct around 4,000 years ago at the end of the last “ice-age”. Bringing them back, Colossal’s team says, is a step towards new technological advancements in environmental conservation.
“Colossal leverages the exponential progress made in technologies for reading and writing DNA and applies it to iconic ecological conservation and carbon sequestration issues,” says fellow co-founder, George Church.
The Harvard University geneticist and other proponents of the de-extinction movement say that along with new insights in the fields of biology and evolution, the project has the power to help repair ecosystems and improve biodiversity.
Colossal has even suggested that woolly mammoths may have the capacity to revitalise arctic grasslands – yet the details of this remain unclear.
De-extinction is not without its problems
“The conversation thus far has been focused on whether or not we can do this. Now, we are progressing toward the: ‘Holy crap, we can – so should we?’ phase,” says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara.
In 2016, McCauley provided a guideline for de-extinction, which concluded that any large scale de-extinction plan would be overly expensive and counterproductive.
Researchers who have debated the costs of de-extinction programs argue that the money could be better spent elsewhere, namely on efforts to prevent the extinction of the world’s plants and animals today. As it stands, over 30 per cent of trees worldwide are threatened by extinction and the UN has warned one million species today are now at risk in total.
There is also some concern that bringing extinct species back to life may have the potential to surface unknown pathogens. These viruses and bacteria may be able to infect humans or other animals.