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Product, Service & Design Innovation
This Startup Aims to Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth, But at What Cost?

Colossal Biosciences says its work to revive keystone species such as the mammoth could be a boon for ecological restoration and biodiversity preservation, but conservationists say it could become a moral and ethical quagmire.

In our world, each species serves as a vital thread weaving together the intricate balance of our ecosystems. Yet, in recent decades, this thread has been unraveling at an alarming rate: Currently, 44,000 species — 41 percent of amphibians, 37 percent of sharks and rays, 36 percent of reef-building corals, 34 percent of conifers, 26 percent of mammals, and 12 percent of birds — are threatened with extinction; each of these plays an important role in the rich biodiversity needed for our planet to thrive.

Colossal Biosciences

Amidst this worrying reality, Dallas-based “de-extinction company” Colossal Biosciences is on a mission to reverse this tide of disappearing species through genetic engineering. The startup plans to resurrect iconic species including the woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger and dodo bird.

Founded in 2021 by geneticist George Church — a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School — and tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm, Colossal emerged from Church's earlier work on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool. In 2019, Lamm — inspired by media coverage of Church's de-extinction research — initiated a meeting at Church's Boston lab; the meeting of the minds ignited the partnership that gave rise to Colossal — a startup now valued at $1.5 billion.

Classic conservation has been immensely successful with certain projects, but we are set to lose species at an alarming rate if alternative paths are not pursued,” Lamm told Sustainable Brands® (SB). “Colossal can provide some of those alternatives — and we are confident we can turn it around for many endangered keystone species.”

Colossal's main project surrounds reviving perhaps the most iconic megafauna of the Pleistocene era — the woolly mammoth. Their approach involves several intricate steps: First, they extract DNA from well-preserved mammoth specimens; sequence the genomes; and then proceed to reconstruct the genetic blueprint of these ancient creatures. They plan to use Asian elephants as surrogate hosts to resurrect the mammoth and anticipate achieving this through IVF by 2028.

By exploiting the close evolutionary relationship between mammoths and Asian elephants, scientists at Colossal intend to introduce mammoth-like traits — including such as cold adaptation and woolly fur growth — into the embryos of these modern-day pachyderms through targeted gene editing, ultimately aiming to produce hybrid offspring that exhibit characteristics reminiscent of their long-extinct ancestors.

“We are employing classic and precise CRISPR-based technologies to advance species de-extinction. Our three key projects [woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger and dodo bird] require different approaches to success; therefore, we have built custom pipelines to achieve all genome-engineering goals associated with them,” Lamm explained. “Precise genome editing is quite relevant and preferred for the mammoth project, whereas large DNA-replacement approaches are highly relevant to species with more evolutionarily distant, closest living relatives.”

Perceived benefits and motivations

Colossal Biosciences sees its woolly mammoth project as a crucial step towards achieving its goal of utilizing genetic engineering for ecological restoration and biodiversity preservation. The company contends that reintroducing keystone species, such as the mammoth, could play a pivotal role in restoring ecological equilibrium and offsetting the adverse effects of human-induced environmental degradation.

Furthermore, the company argues that the resurrection of mammoths holds the potential to contribute to efforts aimed at mitigating climate change: By reintroducing mammoths to Arctic permafrost regions, they posit that these creatures could positively impact carbon sequestration — thereby aiding in the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and promoting environmental sustainability.

“We haven’t to date found very compelling arguments why we should not do this work,” Lamm asserted. “The benefit to conservation and ecosystem restoration, and the mindful approach we are taking to achieve is very obvious; and we will continue to raise awareness around actionable urgency. We can also feel confident that we are rewilding ecosystems where these species have existed before and have since left a massive vacuum. In a way, we can define the risk as what happened to them before going extinct and remedying past natural wrongs that can benefit nature and us.”

Ecosystem restoration or hubris?

But not everyone thinks Colossal is on the right track.

“This has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with ego,” Stuart Pimm, a world leader in conservation biology who has dedicated his career to studying present-day extinctions and strategies for their prevention, told SB.

With over 350 scientific papers and five books to his name, he is one of the world’s most highly cited environmental scientists. He has conducted extensive research on the interconnectivity of ecosystems and food webs — with his contributions to conservation earning him the 2019 International Cosmos Prize, among other awards.

“We need to recognize the complexity of de-extinction efforts,” he explained. “It's not just about creating one mammoth; it's about establishing a viable population — you can't simply release a handful of individuals and expect success. You need dozens, maybe even hundreds, to ensure genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding. And then there's the question of habitat. Where do you put hundreds of elephants? The Arctic? The logistics and environmental implications are staggering. We're altering the climate rapidly, and there's nowhere suitable to reintroduce these species."

There are also several moral implications associated with de-extinction. While the notion of resurrecting extinct species may seem noble at first glance, it raises serious ethical questions about our relationship with nature and our responsibilities as stewards of the planet.

Pimm warned against the dangerous precedent de-extinction sets, suggesting that it could lead to complacency regarding species conservation. By offering the false reassurance that extinct species can be brought back at will, de-extinction may undermine efforts to address the root causes of extinction — including habitat destruction and climate change.

Pimm also highlighted the potential misuse of de-extinction technology as a justification for further environmental exploitation. If we believe that we can resurrect species at our convenience, we may be less inclined to prioritize the protection of endangered habitats and ecosystems.

"There are many individuals who advocate for the clear-cutting of old-growth forests in the Pacific West of the US and the draining of the Everglades, just to name a few examples. In these cases, endangered species are viewed as inconvenient obstacles to economic or developmental interests," Pimm says.

Colossal’s technology, therefore, may present an opportunity for these individuals to pursue their economic or developmental goals without concern for at-risk wildlife.

Prioritizing existing species protection

As the debate surrounding de-extinction and genetic engineering continues, it is evident that Colossal Biosciences' de-extinction plans raise significant ethical and practical concerns; and it’s too early to say whether the potential ecological-restoration and climate-change-mitigation benefits would outweigh the complex challenges and moral implications.

As innovation reaches new heights, so does our responsibility. Amidst this progress, Pimm asserted, the utmost priority remains the protection and preservation of our current biodiversity. By focusing on strategies such as habitat conservation, wildlife protection and ecosystem restoration, we can address the urgent threats facing species today and work towards ensuring their survival for generations to come.