Rather than saving the going-extinct Asian elephant, a leading Harvard geneticist is instead focused on bringing back its long-lost relative, the woolly mammoth. Appropriately named Colossal, the project is determined to produce a woolly mammoth calf within six years to fight climate change. Despite its existence being announced on Monday, Harvard geneticist George Church says the project has been in the works for years; and hardly funded.
Church told CNBC that, “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. It is by far the favorite story. We’ve never done a press release on it in all those years. It just comes up naturally in conversation.”
The tables turned two years ago when Church received a call from serial tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm. They met at Church’s lab and discussed how they could get the project off the ground. Lamm gathered a group of investors who poured $15 million into the project, including funding from renowned self-help guru Tony Robbins, and Lamm became its CEO.
Colossal is focused on combating climate change through these lab-created mammals in their natural place of origin. It is thought that the woolly mammoth will combat climate change by tamping snow and removing trees. This would allow grass to grow, reducing the release of methane gas. Methane gas melts permafrost, which they say contributes to global warming.
Church told The Guardian, “Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth. 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 -40C, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular, knocking down trees.”
Two main factors have contributed to the demise of Asian elephants — the herpes virus and close proximity to humans. Church claims they can correct these problems. “So we’d like to fix both of those and give them a new home, where there’s vast amounts of space with almost no humans, which is northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.” Essentially, they will create a hybrid elephant. The scientists’ initial goal is to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid in the laboratory by producing embryos with mammoth DNA.
The effort begins with reprogramming skin cells from Asian elephants into more versatile stem cells that carry mammoth DNA. The genes responsible for mammoth hair, insulating fat layers, and other cold climatic adaptations are then identified by comparing mammoth genomes taken from permafrost carcasses with those of Asian elephants.
Lamm says they are focused on “the successful de-extinction of inter-breedable herds of mammoths that we can leverage in the rewilding of the Arctic. And then we want to leverage those technologies for what we’re calling thoughtful, disruptive conservation.”
Critics agree that it is disruptive. And maybe even a lousy move altogether.
A paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Torri Herridge brought up valid concerns, even though she would love nothing more than to see a woolly mammoth in the flesh. “The problem here is that we don’t yet fully understand the role of the woolly mammoth as an ecosystem engineer, and it is unclear still whether the mammoth steppe disappeared as a result of the loss of the mammoth or whether the mammoth disappeared because its habitat was lost, along with its ice age world. It’s a big gamble to put your climate-change mitigation hopes on a herd of woolly mammoths – and if it did work, it would require numbers in the hundreds of thousands to have an effect.”
Her other primary concern was for the welfare of the surrogate Asian elephant mother carrying the baby. Due to the Asian elephant being an endangered species, Herridge sees using one as a surrogate mother would be unethical. Surprisingly, Church agrees it would not make sense to use a surrogate mother and has found a workaround for that.
His lab has already genetically manipulated pigs, having made 42 genetic edits to their cells. He claims this is proof that it can be done, as the modified pigs have been used for organ transplants in preclinical trials in three hospitals around the country. “Then we can turn those cells into animals by transferring the nucleus, the DNA-containing part of the cell, in it into an egg, and then it develops into piglets, in that case,” proclaimed Church. “That’s our proof of concept that we can do it. We didn’t do it as a prelude to the elephant, we did it for its own sake, but it helps convince us, so we get to the elephant.”
The “baby mammoth” would be grown in a bag, like the Philadelphia researcher’s who successfully grew a lamb in an artificial womb in 2017.
Herridge points to the emotional provocation that the project elicits. “There’s a reason the terms ‘de-extinction’ and ‘rewilding’ are so powerful, and that’s because they imply a return to a time, a state of grace, a place that was somehow unspoiled. Cloning a mammoth offers us the hope of undoing the excesses of humanity, bringing back the creatures whose extinction we helped bring about.” She explains that what Church is doing is not cloning but simply modifying the genetics of a creature to create a new one altogether. While the thought of woolly mammoths roaming the earth is exciting to many, she points out the irony of “bringing back” an extinct species while its relative is actively going extinct.
“…just think how our kids might feel about the elephant if we let it become extinct. We really ought to be focusing on that and doing everything we can to stop it from happening.”