A flashy new biotech startup launched yesterday called Colossal is on a mission to make an elephant-woolly mammoth mashup — with the ultimate goal of promoting biodiversity and combating climate change, it says. The effort has gotten a lot of hype and big-name backers, but scientists who work in conservation are still pretty skeptical.
The science behind Colossal is in very early stages and is mired in ethical quandaries. The company won’t actually bring back a woolly mammoth, which hasn’t roamed the Earth in about 10,000 years. Instead, Colossal’s de-extinction effort aims to create a hybrid between a woolly mammoth and its distant relative (the two share a common ancestor): the Asian elephant, which itself is an endangered species.
Mammoths are a poor choice for de-extinction — a field of research that has picked up steam in recent years — and this project might steal the spotlight from more important conservation efforts, ecologists and biologists tell The Verge. The woolly mammoth’s pseudo-resurrection is also a risky proposal as a fix for climate change, experts say, given the short timeline humanity has to slash greenhouse gas emissions that have given Earth a fever.
“I guess I confess, the five-year-old in me would just love to see a mammoth,” says Joseph Bennett, an assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Department of Biology at Carleton University. “It’s just fascinating from a scientific standpoint. But if it’s called conservation, and if it’s called fighting climate change, that’s when the problems arise.”
How de-extinction might work
Imagine a furrier, fatter elephant with smaller ears and a high-domed head. That’s what Colossal might one day create using CRISPR technology to edit the DNA of an Asian elephant to introduce traits from woolly mammoths. Over the next four years or so, the aim is to produce embryos with those traits by building off the work of Harvard geneticist George Church, a co-founder of the company. To create the embryo, they might harvest eggs from an elephant or try to create stem cells using elephant tissue. Colossal also wants to create an artificial uterus to carry the embryo, which would take about two years to develop into a 200-pound fetus.
Church and his team of researchers have been working toward that goal for about a decade, and said in 2017 that it was just a couple of years away from creating the embryo. But Church’s team, until now, has lacked the funding to make that happen, according to Colossal co-founder and CEO and tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm. Colossal’s investors, which include private equity firms and self-help guru Tony Robbins, will infuse the project with $15 million. That builds on a previous $100,000 contribution from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel that Church’s team received before Colossal was founded.
If all that funding ultimately results in a real-life Asian elephant-mammoth hybrid, there will still be a lot of ecological and ethical questions with which to grapple. Colossal bills itself as an effort to tackle biodiversity loss. Earth is probably losing a species or more a day, according to Bennett. There is evidence of a mass extinction taking place, the likes of which hasn’t been seen on Earth for millions of years. When it comes to protecting biodiversity on our planet, resurrecting a prehistoric creature is low on the priority list.
“Even within endangered species that we want to keep from going extinct, we have to prioritize what are the winners and the losers,” says Ginger Allington, a landscape ecologist and assistant professor at George Washington University.
Funding de-extinction could hurt other conservation efforts by siphoning off limited resources, Bennett’s previous research has found. Spending the same amount of money on traditional conservation efforts could save up to eight times more species than if the money was to be spent on de-extinction. The Asian elephant itself could use help; its numbers have dropped in half over the past three generations.
Lamm believes Colossal’s work might benefit the elephants and draw more attention to other conservation efforts. “We’re trying to make sure that we do this in the most transparent and ethical way as possible,” Lamm tells The Verge. “We feel very confident about what we can do to help the elephant lineage … For us it’s about giving the species additional tools to survive.” An elephant with mammoth traits would be better able to survive in the Arctic’s cold temperatures, away from urbanization that threatens its species, he says.
But Asian elephants’ home is tropical South and Southeast…