- The biotech/genetics company Colossal announced it had raised $15 million in funding for a project that aims to “de-extinct the woolly mammoth”.
- The company’s mission is to create a genetic hybrid that combines woolly mammoth genes with the DNA of an Asian elephant.
- Church and his colleagues at Colossal believe that by reviving a hybrid version of the woolly mammoth and introducing it into the Arctic tundra, the habitat can be re-established, restoring the rich biodiversity.
The prospect of “reviving” an extinct species – or a genetic hybrid version of it – is moving closer to reality thanks to the sophistication of genome engineering technologies coupled with our ability to extract and sequence archaic DNA samples, reports Technology Networks.
About The Park
The park is an initiative that aims to restore the Mammoth Steppe, a region that dominated parts of Europe and Asia over 50,000 years ago. The Mammoth Steppe was rich with biodiversity – including, as the name suggests, the woolly mammoth. The Steppe had high biomass and ecological productivity until it diminished approximately 10,000 years ago; the cause continues to be debated.
Now, the Steppe is an Arctic tundra; a stark landscape covered in permafrost that contains trapped carbon. As the Earth’s temperature rises and the permafrost melts, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.
The melting of permafrost also reveals archaeological samples that have been buried for thousands of years, including the ancient bones of woolly mammoths from which DNA can be extracted, sequenced, and analyzed.
Through reading the genome, scientists can reconstruct it. This does not mean they can create an exact replica of the woolly mammoth from scratch; rather, they can take its genes and insert them into another living species using genome engineering, such as the Asian elephant – the mammoth’s closest living relative.
Ten Core Motivations For Tts “De-Extinction Project”
Motivation for the project Colossal’s website outlines 10 core motivations for its “de-extinction project“:
- To decelerate melting of the arctic permafrost.
- To prevent the emission of greenhouse gases trapped within the permafrost layer – up to 600 million tons of net carbon annually.
- To revert now-overshrubbed forests back into natural arctic grasslands, which help with carbon emissions.
- To restore the Mammoth Steppe.
- To foster an ecosystem that can maintain its own defenses against climate change.
- To understand the dominant traits amongst cold-resistant genomes.
- To save modern elephants from extinction.
- To establish a proven link between genetic sciences and climate change.
- To equip nature with resilience against humanity’s adverse effects on vital ecosystems.
- To drive advancements in multiplex CRISPR editing.
“Elephants are the only animals which efficiently knock down trees and the resulting increase in grass yields three favorable outcomes: higher photosynthesis – hence new carbon sequestration, higher reflectance (albedo) – hence less solar warming, and more trampled snow – hence higher cold conductance to help freeze the ground and keep methane from escaping,” Church said.
Protecting Asian elephants – which are an endangered species – is also a priority for the biotech company, Church explained. By genetically engineering beneficial traits into the Asian elephant, he hopes that the company can help to promote their survival and reproduction. This brings us to the how of Colossal’s de-extinction agenda.
The concept of de-extinction is not a novel phenomenon, and several methods for reviving a “proxy” version of an ancient species have been proposed in recent years. Colossal’s strategy revolves around the genome engineering techniques that have been refined in Church’s lab over recent years, utilizing CRISPR-Cas9 technology.
How Woolly Mammoth Will Interact With Modern Animals
Colossal’s vision is to create a cold-resistant elephant that can thrive in the Arctic tundra. But the complex relationship between genotype and phenotype means that it is impossible to say with exact certainty exactly what the mammoth–elephant hybrids would look, behave and interact like.
Nathaniel Kitchel is an archeologist at Dartmouth University, where he specializes in the study of the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene populations. When asked for his thoughts on how mammoth–elephant hybrids might interact with modern animals – and humans – he told that it is “deeply” unclear.
“While some behaviors would likely be instinctual, many others would have been learned through socialization. Modern elephants are highly intelligent and highly social animals, where the young animals learn a great deal from older members of their group,” Kitchel said. Church is not ignorant to the potential issues surrounding socialization and emphasized that Colossal will be paying extremely close attention to this aspect of the project.
The New Technologies
Should its de-extinction endeavors prove successful, Colossal will not be profiting from the mammoth–elephant hybrids. Rather, it’s the cutting-edge technologies expected to be conceived through the project that will provide investors with a monetary return.
According to Church, his lab can advance a new technology from concept to “industry-ready” with a budget of $1-2 million dollars. With $15 million dollars in Colossal’s funding pot, what technological fruits can we expect its de-extinction project to bear? “In principle, that [funding] could help us create seven new technologies, but nothing is perfect,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we get one technology out of that first set [of investment].“
Colossal’s business leaders have set aggressive goals for the project: they predict the first calf will be born in six years’ time. This time frame incorporates two years for initial mouse experiments, two years for “debugging” the transition to elephants, and the two-year gestation period, Church explained.
Fine-tuning The Genome Engineering Process
One of the potential barriers to this timeframe is fine-tuning the genome engineering process. Inserting genes from one species into the genome of another – successfully – is no easy feat. But the Church lab has a lot of practice: “We’ve already successfully put 42 changes into the pig genome. They are healthy, breeding, and are producing organs that can be used for clinical trials in hospitals. This shows us that we know how to go from an idea to a very complicated set of [genetic] changes, and make it work,” he said.
What the team isn’t certain of right now is just how many changes will need to be made in the Asian elephant genome to create the elephant–mammoth hybrid. The Church lab is a frontrunner in multiplexed genome editing – the process of introducing multiple changes in a genome simultaneously; its record number of successful changes made is 22,000.
Criticisms are “Out Of Date”
Regardless of the motivations behind its application, genome engineering is often subject to close scrutiny and debate, both within the scientific community and throughout society. The response to Colossal’s mammoth project has been somewhat polarized.
Kitchel said that, while he finds the science behind de-extinction projects “fascinating“, and potentially important in terms of the development of new technology, his feelings towards returning a particular species from extinction are somewhat mixed.
“Personally, I think we are best served by protecting endangered species from becoming extinct, rather than trying to bring them back after they have disappeared. This obviously does not preclude working on the science of de-extinction, it is only to say that given the challenges and uncertainty of these techniques, I would rather we continue to work towards maintaining biodiversity instead of trying to reverse-engineer ecosystems after destroying them.”
Threats to Asian elephants
Church expanded on the two main reasons as to why the Asian elephant is endangered:
1) interaction with the herpes virus – which his lab has been researching for several years,
2) interaction with humans. Sadly, Asian elephants are a target for poachers that kill mammals to extract their valuable tusks.
Exposure to poachers, Church said, is a result of Asian elephants living near human population centers throughout Asia.
Colossal is also considering genetically engineering the mammoth–elephant hybrid to have smaller tusks. “Plenty of elephants in the wild do not have tusks, and so we can engineer this to be standard, or it could vary depending on whether the hybrid is under intense guard or not.”
Focusing on Climate Crisis
Despite the “hype” that has stirred since Colossal initially announced its $15 million round of investment, Church is humble in his discussion of the woolly mammoth project throughout the interview. When questioned on what it means to him in the context of his career, he said: “I don’t want to over or understate it,” adding that, “While it is wonderful to receive the investment and reassurance of a broad range of investors, the funding is ultimately bringing the project up to scale [in financial terms] with our other projects.”
Colossal’s revival of the woolly mammoth isn’t the only work Church is pursuing on carbon sequestration, but it’s arguably the most ambitious. In his opinion, the current crisis our planet is faced with calls for mammoth-sized interventions.
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Source: Technology Networks