Colossal bet aims to revive, unleash woolly mammoth in Canada's Arctic

A private company wants to resurrect a gigantic species that once roamed the Earth — and it’ll spare no expense to make its plan a reality.

Sound familiar?

A new startup says it’s prepared to spend US$15 million on the Jurassic Parkesque dream of reviving the long-dead woolly mammoth, in hopes of one day restoring it to the tundra regions that it once called home.

Those tundra regions now belong to countries like Russia and Canada, which might have something to say about releasing big hairy elephant hybrids into their respective wildernesses. Those areas are also rapidly warming due to climate change, meaning they will look different from what they were when the last mammoth died 4,000 years ago.

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Nevertheless, a company called Colossal says it’s got enough private funding to potentially make its woolly dream come true through cutting-edge gene-editing techniques.

“Our teams have collected viable DNA samples, and are editing the genes that will allow this wonderful megafauna to once again thunder through the Arctic,” Colossal says on its website.

Biotech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and George Church, a renowned Harvard geneticist, announced their startup on Monday.

“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth,” Church told the Evening Standard. “Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40 Celsius, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do.”

They also want to establish a population that will interbreed and carry on without human guidance.

Colossal co-founders Ben Lamm, left, and George Church are shown in this handout photo.

Colossal co-founders Ben Lamm, left, and George Church are shown in this handout photo.

Business Wire

The co-founders aim to produce mammoth-elephant calves within the next six years, with the goal of establishing wild populations in northern Eurasia and North America in the future.

They’re framing it as a de-extinction effort that could also help the environment, especially if the mammoth hybrids can transform the tundra into fertile carbon-capturing grassland. Their method could also potentially be used to revive other extinct species in the future, including ones that died out because of humans.

Colossal’s plan is to use CRISPR, a genetic copy-and-paste tool, to combine mammoth DNA with that of its living cousin, the Asian elephant. The mammoth DNA will come from specimens recovered from the melting permafrost in Siberia, and the elephant DNA will be extracted from elephant skin cells.

Church says he’ll create a hybrid set of DNA that includes the cold-weather traits of the mammoth. This DNA will then replace the DNA inside an Asian elephant egg, and the egg will be implanted into a female elephant to carry it to term.

If all goes well, the elephant mother would give birth to a very hairy hybrid resembling the mammoths of old.

If it doesn’t go well… well… at least they’re not planning an amusement park around it?

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“I’m not making a bold prediction this is going to be easy,” Church told the New York Times. “But everything up to this point has been relatively easy. Every tissue we’ve gone after, we’ve been able to get a recipe for.”

The actual pregnancy might prove to be difficult, as Colossal expects the elephant mother to carry a hefty mammoth fetus for 18 to 22 months.

Adult woolly mammoths stood about two feet taller and weighed about two tons more than today’s Asian elephants, so the hybrid fetus might prove a challenge for its mother.

The whole project also presents a raft of ethical issues, according to several outside scientists who have commented on the proposal.

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Victoria Herridge of Natural History Museum said the whole thing seems “implausible” and riddled with questions about what happens once the creature is brought to life.

“What is this creature? Is it a new species? How many do you need?” she asked in an interview with the Evening Standard. “If they succeed, what will the needs be of an intelligent social creature? And what are our obligations to it?”

Heather Bushman, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, said she’s worried about the lives that the potential hybrid calves might lead.

“You don’t have a mother for a species that — if they are anything like elephants — has extraordinarily strong mother-infant bonds that last for a very long time,” she told the New York Times. “Once there is a little mammoth or two on the ground, who is making sure that they’re being looked after?”

Church has been on the side of bleeding-edge genetic experiments before. In 2018, for instance, he supported a Chinese scientist who claimed to have made a designer baby with immunity to HIV.

“I think this is justifiable,” Church told The Associated Press at the time.

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Colossal has secured roughly $15 million in private funding from various investors, including the Winklevoss twins.

But that money didn’t come easy. Church spent years trying to drum up investments, and the project didn’t take off until he piqued Lamm’s interest during a meeting in 2019.

“We had about $100,000 over the last 15 years, which is way, way less than any other project in my lab, but not through lack of enthusiasm,” Church told CNBC. “Ben came out of the blue, I think inspired at a distance from what he was reading about this very charismatic project, which was very underfunded.”

Lamm suggests the mammoth would be a proof of concept for Colossal’s technology, and that the same techniques could later be used for “thoughtful, disruptive conservation.”

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Colossal is not the first group to take aim at resurrecting the mammoth through gene editing. The California-based Revive & Restore Project also wants to see the woolly mammoth brought back to life.

Scientists have toyed with the idea of resurrecting mammoths for years, in large part because there are so many well-preserved bodies left over in the Russian permafrost. Those bodies are rich with various tissues and DNA, unlike the remains of dinosaurs, which typically turn to stone through the fossilization process.

In other words, Jurassic Park is still a Hollywood pipe dream, but a Pleistocene World might be in reach — especially if Colossal can deliver on its mammoth promise.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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