The last woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) died about 4,000 years ago, stranded on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. However, most were already done for by the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Thus, an evolutionary legacy spanning nearly one million years came to a sudden halt. Or has it?
Leading scientists in the field of genetic engineering have proposed resurrecting the wooly mammoth for some time, much to the dismay of critics who find such a prospect technically impossible, on one hand, and ethically flawed, on the other. But proponents of bringing species back from extinction have been validated with the announcement of an important $15 million in funding raised by Colossal, a bioscience and genetics startup with the stated goal of eventually breeding a live mammoth.
A wild mission in science if there ever was one
The company’s mission sounds like a venture capital trap that will burn through investor’s cash with nothing to show at the end, considering the ludicrous end goal and the confidence shared by so many flashy biotech startups in the past, which were nevertheless doomed from infancy. Yet the people that are shouldering this effort are of international caliber — the kind of credibility that makes us see this research with healthy skepticism rather than ridicule.
Colossal is the brainchild of tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard genetics professor George Church.
Church is one of the pioneers of the Human Genome Project and the inventor of gene editing technologies currently employed by labs across the world. His work is focused on reversing aging, making humans immune to viruses, and eradicating genetic diseases.
But Church’s most controversial ideas surround the resurrection of extinct species, something that he has been actively pursuing for the last eight years. Now, with this generous funding, Colossal plans on super-charging Church’s prior research in order to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid by inserting mammoth genes into the DNA of an elephant embryo.
Although mammoths have been long extinct, many specimens have been found in pristine conditions in the Siberian permafrost, whose frigid temperature is ideal for conserving tissue. Paleontologists have not only found woolly mammoth fossils but also muscle, kidney, and even blood samples.
These high-quality DNA samples have offered an unprecedented opportunity to sequence the genome of a species that disappeared thousands of years ago. Previously, Church’s lab zeroed in on more than 60 genes that are responsible for distinctive mammoth traits, such as their shaggy hair, curved tusks, or high-domed skull.
Artificial wombs and hybrids
Since Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that roamed the planet about six million years ago, scientists believe it is possible to modify the genome of an extant elephant in such a way as to give birth to a mammoth-like creature.
Initially, the plan was to implant genetically modified embryos into surrogate female elephants, but this idea has been scrapped. Church believes this method is too complicated seeing how no one has successfully performed in vitro fertilization in elephants so far. He would also like to see a herd of mammoths, which is impractical to do with surrogates.
Instead, his solution is even more outlandish: breeding the embryo inside an artificial womb, whose walls are lined with uterine tissue grown from stem cells.
The starting point is the skin cells of Asian elephants, which can be reprogrammed to turn into pluripotent stem cells, which in turn can differentiate into any type of tissue as instructed. These stem cells would be used to make the artificial womb, but also to make a medium to carry mammoth DNA.
If everything goes according to plan, the artificial womb would gestate a 200-pound baby wooly mammoth-elephant hybrid of some sort for two years. However, the resulting animal would be more of an elephant, and partly mammoth.
“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,” Church told The Guardian.
But that’s obviously easier said than done. And aside from the inherent technical challenges that come with the territory of bringing back a species from the dead, even if its only partly through some genes, there are also ethical issues.
“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,” Heather Bushman, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, 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?”
For its part, Colossal claims its projects are meant to enhance conservation efforts and improve ecosystems. The tundra of Siberia and North America, once the natural habitats of mammoths, is warming fast and the grasslands have made way for moss. When the woolly mammoths were around, they acted as ecosystem engineers, breaking up the moss, knocking down trees, and providing fertilizer with their waste to support grasslands.
To counter the rapidly shifting environment in the Siberian tundra, Russian authorities have introduced bison and other species but Colossal argues that mammoth-elephant hybrids are better equipped for the job. Critics, however, have been quick to point out that this is more of a pipe dream or a mere justification to greenwash the controversial bioengineering project. Restoring the tundra with mammoths would require thousands of individuals, each taking decades to reach maturity. That’s considering a ton of ifs and assumptions need to work out perfectly to even reach this stage.
But even if they only produce one healthy hybrid, Church and colleagues believe that would still be a huge win. The techniques and technologies they’d develop in the process could then be used to enhance the resilience of critically endangered species that are too slow to adapt to the rapidly changing environment due to climate change. Certain individuals in a population, for instance, could be engineered to have genes that offer more resilience to heat, pathogens, and droughts.
Genius or madness, it’s still early to say what to make of Colossal and its resurrected mammoths.