Modern day Texas is home to deer, rattlesnakes, and bobcats, to name a few animals, and – according to news from a de-extinction company – soon, it might also have mammoths. The company behind the ambitious target is Colossal Biosciences, and it’s their goal to have living, breathing mammoths at their Texas-based facility by 2028.
“Colossal Biosciences is, to our knowledge at least, the world’s first de-extinction and species preservation company,” founder Ben Lamm told IFLScience during an interview about whether or not we can bring back dinosaurs. “What that means to us is looking at and understanding which genes are associated with the core phenotypes, or physical attributes, that existed in an extinct animal.”
“For example, for the woolly mammoth, it’s the dome cranium, the curved tusk, and whatever is making it cold-tolerant, as well as a lot of things under the hood. Things like how nerve endings respond to freezing temperatures, how the body produces haemoglobin, and the shaggy wool coat.”
Finding those genes means first looking at an extinct animal’s closest living relative, and in the case of the mammoth, that’s the Asian elephant, which is 99.6 percent the same, genetically speaking.
“What we’re asking is how can we at Colossal understand the core genes that made elephants cold tolerant,” Lamm continued. “Those genes are now extinct, so how do we de-extinct those genes and put them into the architecture, if you will, of an existing living animal?”
“If we can de-extinct those genes, then you have the mammoth 2.0.”
The route towards meeting that mammoth 2.0 in the flesh involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell of an Asian elephant and replacing it with a nucleus packed full of all the genes for the traits Lamm mentioned a mammoth needs to thrive (cold tolerance, curved tusks, shaggy wool coat etc.). That means it would be a kind of cold-tolerant elephant hybrid, something PopSci reports fellow Colossal Biosciences founder George Church compares to creating “the cuddly version of a velociraptor”.
Some have questioned if pursuing the mammoth at a time when so many extant animals are on the brink is the best route forward, but it’s hoped that the novel technologies and discoveries yielded from the de-extinction of ancient animals could benefit modern ones, too.
“All of the technologies that we develop on the path to de-extinction, some of them have applications to human healthcare which we are monetizing,” continued Lamm. “We did that last year, we spun out our first computational biology platform, but all the technologies that could add to assisted reproductive technologies or conservation groups for zoos or animal groups worldwide, we are subsidizing and giving to the world for free.”
“We think it could be transformative for conservation. So, this de-extinction tool kit that we’re building over time with our species, we want to make available and free for every conservation group out there.”
Colossal Biosciences has also argued that the de-extinction of the woolly 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.
Perhaps in 2028, we'll find out.