In just a few short years, ancient behemoths could return to roaming the Earth, thanks to a revolutionary project by Colossal Biosciences. By 2027, we could be sharing the planet once again with one of the best-known extinct species, the woolly mammoth. Dallas-based biotechnology company Colossal has initiated this venture to combat climate change, planning to introduce hybrid woolly mammoths to the nature reserve Pleistocene Park in Siberia, Russia.
Says the company’s website: “Colossal’s landmark de-extinction project will be the resurrection of the woolly mammoth — or more specifically, a cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the woolly mammoth.
“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. And this core value cannot be overstated: The woolly mammoth is a vital defender of the Earth.”
Pleistocene Park and Climate Change
Pleistocene Park is a nature reserve trying to recreate the grasslands that were spread out during the twilight of the Ice Age. It’s an ambitious project to reverse the changes that occurred over the past 10,000 years. Scientists believe the disappearance of herbivores from the mammoth steppes led to the vanishing grasslands. A simple way to reverse this would be to reintroduce herbivores in the area to speed up grass formation.
The park hosts 10 herbivore species, including moose, bison, horses, camels, and cows. The addition of woolly mammoths could speed up the formation of grasslands, as the beasts would knock over trees. This task is presently carried out by the park’s administration, which uses decommissioned tanks.
Colossal Biosciences’ Ambitious Plan
According to Colossal Biosciences, its woolly mammoth hybrid could prove to be an important defender in the fight against climate change. As grasslands proliferate in the mammoth steppes, the defrosting of the permafrost could be slowed. This is necessary because the melting of permafrost might release trillions of tons of trapped carbon, which will only speed up global warming.
The ultimate goal of Colossal Biosciences seems to be straight out of science fiction because it intends to save the world by essentially going back in time and reviving an extinct species.
The company was co-founded by Ben Lamm, a serial tech entrepreneur, and Harvard geneticist George Church. Both are aware that their idea is radical. However, both are also convinced that it’s achievable. At least the technology exists to sustain their vision.
“We’re ushering in a thoughtful wave of restorative biology to de-extinct a species, protect species at risk of extinction and re-wild [reintroduce] degraded ecosystems,” said Lamm. “This is groundbreaking. We are in control of a science that has the power to reverse and prevent biodiversity loss.”
A Woolly Mammoth for the Modern Day
The famed woolly mammoth went extinct over 4,000 years ago. Humans and Neanderthals lived alongside these magnificent beasts for thousands of years. In fact, the Neanderthals relied on the gargantuan pachyderms for virtually everything, from food to shelter, and art to tools. Interestingly, the world’s first musical instrument — the flute — was fashioned out of mammoth tusks.
If Colossal is successful in its de-extinction project, humans and woolly mammoths may once again roam the Earth together.
The plan for Colossal is to essentially create an elephant akin to the woolly mammoth, capable of surviving the sub-zero temperatures in Siberia.
For this, they will be using the DNA of the closest phenotype of the woolly mammoth, the Asian elephant. The two share 99.6% of their DNA. Using CRISPR, Colossal will splice genetic traits of the woolly mammoth into the DNA of the Asian elephants. The qualities embedded into the genes of the Asian elephant will include five different types of shaggy hair, smaller ears, and a very thick layer of fat for insulation.
“This gives us the ability to re-wild this critical species into a degrading ecosystem to combat the effects of climate change in a disruptive, new way,” Lamm explained.
Colossal Biosciences’ team of experts hopes to achieve numerous environmental benefits by reviving the woolly mammoth. A number of these benefits have been tested and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals by scientists in Pleistocene Park, including the preservation of permafrost, carbon sequestration, albedo effect, and reduced methane emissions.
It’s anticipated that the woolly mammoths and other grazing herbivores will trample the winter snow, thereby destroying the insulation layer of heat and slowing down the melting of permafrost. Carbon sequestration will happen because grasslands are better for storing carbon than trees. Moreover, Arctic soils are predisposed toward higher carbon storage and are not prone to forest fires.
The albedo effect is the phenomenon whereby grasslands can maintain lower temperatures because lighter surfaces reflect most of the sun’s heat back to space, as compared to the heat-absorbing dark trunks of trees. On the other hand, methane emissions are reduced due to arctic vegetation’s slow rate of evapotranspiration, which means that Arctic soils are usually moist.
Colossal Biosciences Assembles a Top-Notch Team
For the CEO of Colossal Biosciences, the more exciting prospect is not the revival of the woolly mammoth, but the opportunities it presents for the conservation of Earth’s ecosystem. According to a report by the United Nations, nearly 1 million species are at risk of extinction within 20 to 30 years. If Colossal is successful in its mission, the technology could be used to preserve and protect these species. Species at risk of extinction due to climate change may also have their genes edited to help them survive the effects of climate change.
“We’ve worked carefully and diligently on assembling an advisory board of geneticists, bioethicists, scientists, and conservationists to foster an ongoing dialogue with industry experts as well as the broader public at large,” shared Lamm.
The company is already working with the Vertebrate Genomes Project to preserve the genes of African, Asian, and Forest Elephants. But the work starts with the revival of the ancient beast.
“Evolution is a slow-moving beast,” explains the Colossal Biosciences website. “The changes in protein pairing of any specific genome take millennia after millennia to manifest. Thus, while the woolly mammoth is not currently stomping its way across the tundra, the animal’s code is in fact almost 100% still alive in today’s Asian elephants. Precisely, the two mammals share a 99.6% similar DNA makeup.
“While this may seem like a small number, it’s still an enormous challenge to overcome — more possible today than ever with modern genetic engineering knowledge and technology. And the scientists at Colossal are leading the globe in research and progress into bringing the mammoth back — closing this 0.4% of genome similarity through the use of CRISPR genome editing.”