A famous Harvard geneticist and a startup founder most famous for planning to launch satellites to search for UFOs in Earth’s atmosphere have announced a new venture to de-extinct woolly mammoths using advanced gene-editing technology.
Investor and co-founder Ben Lamm announced the launch of Colossal, along with a $15 million dollar seed round, Monday morning. It’s not the first science fiction-esque project Lamm has worked on. Lamm is also the founder of Hypergiant Industries, which, among other things, is trying to launch satellites to search for UFOs on earth.
Colossal describes itself as a “breakthrough bioscience and genetic engineering company” that is “accepting humanity’s duty to restore Earth to a healthier state, while also solving for the future economies and biological necessities of the human condition through cutting-edge science and technologies.”
Colossal will essentially sponsor research at a Harvard Medical School lab run by co-founder George Church, an infamous and at times controversial geneticist who has been discussing the possibility of de-extinction for nearly a decade. Church has been an emphatic supporter of de-extinction—the restoration of extinct species to their former habitats—and conducted research into mammoth de-extinction for nearly a decade.
In a Zoom call with Motherboard, Lamm said the company was building off of research from Church, as well as other researchers like David Rice, who have managed to sequence the genome of 23 Asian elephants, the closest living relative to woolly mammoths. Eriona Hysolli, Colossal’s lead biological scientist, also extracted and analyzed DNA from a well-preserved mammoth caracas found in the permafrost of the Siberian taiga.
“They’ve pretty much managed to complete the assembly of the 60 plus genes that would essentially make an elephant genome functionally that of a woolly mammoth,” Lamm said. “That’s the phenotypic attributes: small ears for low temperatures; cold-tolerant hemoglobin; 10 centimeters of brown fat; and of course what people mostly know and love, that furry, shaggy coat.”
The company is currently in the gene-editing phase, where it’s working to leverage genetic tools like CRISPR to splice and edit cells which can then be cloned to create embryos.
If all goes to plan, Lamm said that he is “confident” Colossal will produce its first set of elephant-mammoth hybrid calves in four to six years. Long term, the plan is to have large herds of mammoths reintroduced to the Arctic.
Colossal argues that returning extinct species to their original habitats will “revitalize lost ecosystems for a healthier planet.” Bringing back the Arctic grasslands, the company says, will slow the melting of permafrost storing gases like carbon and methane. A spokesperson also told Motherboard that technology developed by Colossal could be applied to other current species facing extinction. (Notably, the company does explicitly exclude the “use of these Harvard technologies in humans”).
Church’s lab is no stranger to criticism, however. In a round of media interviews in 2017, Church claimed he was two years away from creating a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo, a feat that one expert claimed Church knew “neither he nor anybody else is going to make” in that time span. Other experts have voiced ethical concerns regarding mammoth de-extinction, especially the potential use of surrogate mothers, and lambasted the potential gamble of placing “your climate-change mitigation hopes on a herd of woolly mammoths.”
There’s also the question of whether potential de-extinction is even worth the hefty price tag and resources, and whether those should instead be spent on species that are still living and breathing. Lamm, for his part, doesn’t see de-extinction and current conservation efforts as an intrinsic zero-sum game.
Colossal acknowledges that there are scientific hurdles ahead. Implementing a woolly mammoth embryo remains one of the challenges, and the company is exploring both surrogacy and artificial wombs as potential options.
Lamm claims it’s different this time, though. Church worked for years on a “shoestring budget”—a $100,000 donation from venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Now, Church and his team have millions of dollars behind them and a team of powerful investors.
“This allows us to give the biologists and scientists the focus they need to be successful,” Lamm said. “I truly believe that if I or others had been focusing the right level of capital and energy into this five years ago, we would have mammoths today.”