A new biotech startup has announced its bold vision to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid, claiming that it could help save the Arctic tundra. The main question, once posed by a famous chaotician, is whether the scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
The idea of resurrecting the wooly mammoth from extinction often crops up in sensational headlines and lofty pipe dreams, but has not yet come to fruition. Perhaps though, this latest announcement has some legs: Along with wrangling up $15 million worth of funding, the start-up, dubbed Colossal, was co-founded by George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who has pioneered many new approaches to gene editing and Ben Lamm, a tech and software entrepreneur.
Colossal's aim is to use genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and other technology to help save critically endangered species that are on the brink of total collapse — or even “resurrect” species that have fallen into extinction.
Chief among their goals is a de-extinction project that will result in the creation of a woolly mammoth hybrid. Using CRISPR technology, they hope to create an Asian elephant containing woolly mammoth genes that will exhibit many of the cold-resistant biological traits seen in the extinct species.
“Technologies discovered in pursuit of this grand vision – a living, walking proxy of a woolly mammoth – could create very significant opportunities in conservation and beyond, not least of which include inspiring public interest in STEM, prompting timely discussions in bioethics, and raising awareness of the vital importance of biodiversity,” Church said in a statement.
Church told CNBC they aim to create a hybrid that will essentially look and behave just like a woolly mammoth. To achieve this, a genetically tweaked embryo will be implanted into an “engineered endometrium” and then an artificial womb, similar to the one seen in a 2017 study that grew a lamb in a plastic bag.
Many scientists have previously pondered over the ethics of bringing back extinct species. Is it “playing God?” Could it upset the current balance of nature? Shouldn’t we focus on saving those species that are still living yet desperately struggling?
Colossal argues that the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth is not merely designed to flex the muscles of science. Although it certainly will push the boundaries of what’s scientifically possible, they believe the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth could also help to halt, or perhaps even reverse, some of the effects of climate change. They suggest that mammoths grazing and roaming around the Arctic tundra will allow grasslands to thrive, which would help slow thawing and the release of stored greenhouse gases within the permafrost.
“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,” said Lamm. “In addition to bringing back ancient extinct species like the woolly mammoth, we will be able to leverage our technologies to help preserve critically endangered species that are on the verge of extinction and restore animals where humankind had a hand in their demise.”
Some scientists have also questioned how feasible this aspiration is. In a Twitter thread, Dr Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist who studies ancient elephants at the Natural History Museum London, estimates that it would require millions of mammoths to significantly impact Arctic ecosystems. As she points out, this animal would also not technically be a "proper" woolly mammoth, but a totally new chimeric elephant. This raises further ethical conundrums, such as who is responsible for this novel genetically modified organism and its potential impacts on the modern world.
No doubt aware of these many hurdles, Colossal is pushing forward. If all goes to plan, Church says the hybrid could be created in just six years' time. It's worth remembering, however, that Church has been working on the de-extinction of mammoths for years and said that he was just two years away from creating a mammoth-elephant hybrid embryo back in 2017. Now, with millions of dollars firmly in the company's coffers, this dream could be edging closer to reality.