The colossal will attempt to give birth to the mammoth over the next four to six years.
You may have heard of startups making computer chips, delivery drones and social networks. The one called Colossal has a very different goal: to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction by 2027 using CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing technology.
The plan is not to actually recreate the woolly mammoth, but to bring on their cold-adapted genetic traits such as small ears and their body fat to those of their cousins, creating a hybrid that can wander the tundra where Mammoths haven’t been seen for 10,000 years. Colossal’s co-founders are chief executive Ben Lam, who previously started five companies, and George Church, a Harvard Medical School professor with deep CRISPR expertise.
“Our true North Star is a successful restoration of the woolly mammoth, but also its successful reintroduction into interbreeding herds in the Arctic,” Lam said. “We are now focused on having our first calves in the next four to six years.”
It’s an interesting example of an inevitable broad sweep in the tech world: not only make money, help the planet, too. Tesla’s mission is to electrify transportation to get rid of fossil fuels that harm the Earth. Bolt Threads seeks to replace leather with a fungal fiber-based counterpart that is easier on the environment than animal agriculture. Colossal hopes its work will draw attention to biodiversity problems and eventually help fix them.
Colossal has raised $15 million to date. The startup’s 19 employees work at its Dallas headquarters and offices in Boston and Austin, Texas, and it’s using its funds to hire more.
Artificial womb and other technology spinoffs
Church said he expects spinoffs from the company’s biotechnology and genetics work.
“The pipeline of large-scale genome engineering techniques can be applied to many other applications beyond extinction, and therefore [are] Most promising for commercialization,” he said.
One technology ripe for commercialization is multiplex genome engineering, a technique Church helped speed up genetic editing by making multiple changes to DNA at once.
Vishal also hopes to develop an artificial womb to grow his giant fetus. Raising just 10 woolly mammoths with surrogate elephant mothers isn’t enough to reach the company’s massive herd.
At the foundation of Colossal’s work is CRISPR. This technique adapted from bacteria, a method developed to identify invading viruses and cut their DNA, is now a mainstay of genetic engineering, and Church has been involved since the early days of CRISPR.
Jurassic Park style tour? No
Selling or licensing spinoff technology is an indirect way of running a business. Another direct option is selling tickets to tourists. After all, humans already pay a lot of money to see charismatic megafauna like lions, elephants and giraffes on African safaris. Seeing a creature that has lived for 10,000 years can add to the excitement.
But that’s not Colossal’s game plan. “Our focus right now is on conserving species and preserving biodiversity, not keeping them in zoos,” Lam said. By recreating the woolly mammoth, Colossal could preserve the genetic heritage of Asian elephants that are now endangered.
Another candidate species looking to recreate the colossal is the woolly rhinoceros, a relative of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino.
Although Colossal isn’t planning on making it a tourist destination, he has a woolly giant rewilding site in mind that seems very close to Jurassic Park: Pleistocene Park. This area of about 60 square miles in northern Russia is named after a geologic period that ended with the last ice age, where researchers Sergei and Nikita Zimov went to test their theories about the ecological and climate impacts of rewilding. are trying.
One Zimov idea is that woolly mammoths would trample snow and knock down trees. This, in turn, would restore grasslands that reflect the sun’s warmer rays and eliminate insulating snow and forests so that the ground is cooler. And that means the ground will remain frozen instead of giving up its existing reserves of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. About 260 billion to 300 billion metric tons of carbon could be released from thawing permafrost by 2300, scientists calculate, exacerbating weather extremes and other problems caused by climate change.
Is extinction of species a good idea?
There is an appeal to the idea of extinction. Humans have dramatically changed the planet, and the United Nations estimates that we threaten 1 million species with extinction as a result.
Colossal hopes its work will bring more attention to the decline of biodiversity. And it also plans to create detailed genetic descriptions of many endangered species “so we have the recipe if that species goes extinct,” Lam said.
But is it really the best use of our resources to help the planet? No, some researchers believe.
There may be some benefits to the revived species, but the money would be better spent trying to protect those that are still around, a group of biologists argued in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. “Potential sacrifices in the conservation of existing species should be an important consideration in deciding whether to invest in extinction or to focus our efforts on existing species,” the researchers wrote.
But it’s not government funding that Colossal is talking about, and Lam argues that his startup’s work complements other conservation efforts. And, he argues, startups can move faster than government-funded work.
In a world dominated by climate crisis headlines, a startup that makes money by focusing on an ecosystem-improvement has special appeal. Jack Lynch, an investor at Jazz Venture Partners, is excited by the software, hardware, and biotech he hopes Colossal will build.
At the same time, “these breakthroughs will help address issues such as land degradation, animal pollinator loss and other negative biodiversity trends,” Lynch said. Given how big our environmental problems are, you can see why an investor might be interested.