Bring Back the Woolly!

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Issue 1, Volume 112

By Sathirtha Mondal 

Chances are that you’ve either seen or heard of “Jurassic Park,” the science fiction film that tells the story of a remote theme park populated by genetically engineered dinosaurs. Inevitably, things go wrong: the park’s security system fails and the resurrected dinosaurs escape, endangering the lives of visitors on the island.

Perhaps this was a warning to future generations to never try to bring back extinct animals. When the movie was released in 1993, such a concept was pure science fiction. Since then, scientists have made immense progress in de-extinction, the process of bringing back extinct species, through genetic engineering. In fact, a team of entrepreneurs and scientists launched Colossal, a company aimed at resurrecting the long-extinct woolly mammoth, which has raised $15 million in initial funding.

Though the company has only recently been publicized, the project has been in the making for eight years. The idea first emerged in 2013 in a talk given by Dr. George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Colossal, at the National Geographic Society. Church and his fellow researchers studied the genomes of extinct species to identify key differences between them and their modern cousins. In doing so, they also determined how these genetic differences led to phenotypic, or observable, differences.

The process led Church to target the genome of Asian elephants, the living descendants of woolly mammoths, to replicate them. He has been leading a small team of geneticists, biologists who study genetics, in developing a hybrid embryo. The process entails editing elephant DNA by adding genes that match those responsible for mammoth traits like thick fat, blood that resists freezing, and dense hair. While this will not bring back the woolly mammoth, it will introduce a mammoth-elephant hybrid closely resembling it. If scientists can bridle the skeptical crowd and commence their experiments, we can expect the first calves to be produced within six years.

Colossal’s mission is not solely to bring back the woolly mammoth. Instead, it tackles a broader issue of revitalizing ecosystems and fighting climate change. During the Pleistocene, the era in which woolly mammoths lived, the Siberian tundra was a vast grassland where these giants roamed, fertilizing the grass with their droppings and clearing the land of trees and shrubs. Over thousands of years, this region developed a layer of permafrost, or frozen ground, that persisted until a heatwave in 2020 made it start to thaw. Unfortunately, the permafrost is covered with a layer of thick snow that prevents the frigid air from reaching it and keeping it frozen. As permafrost contains plant matter, its thawing causes this matter to rot, releasing substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, this would rapidly drive climate change.

Reintroducing woolly mammoths, which are cold-resistant, to the tundra would allow them to consume the plant matter encased within the permafrost and destroy the blanket of snow atop it, enabling the cold air to keep the layer intact and preventing the release of methane into the atmosphere. In fact, researchers suspect that they can keep 80 percent of the permafrost frozen through 2100 with the woolly mammoth, whereas only 43 percent would remain frozen if the ecosystem is left untouched. The addition would also promote the Earth’s biodiversity and provide threatened species a safeguard against extinction as humans would have the capabilities of resurrecting them.

In spite of its potential benefits, Colossal must first overcome the major hurdle of ethics before it can go through with experiments. Many critics, especially environmentalists, point out that dedicating ample money and resources to de-extinction may take away from current conservation efforts, especially if the project fails. Many also argue that we should allocate resources to more urgent matters, like combating the ongoing sixth mass extinction that is looming over nearly one million threatened species. Some are also skeptical of whether the hybrid would survive in a world that has changed so drastically since the Pleistocene era. However, the scientists at Colossal suggest that over time, the process will become less costly and their work may actually benefit the Asian elephant and other endangered species, as well as draw attention to conservation efforts.

While science fiction has covered seemingly impossible concepts like de-extinction, the team behind Colossal is seeking to make it a reality by reviving the long-extinct woolly mammoth. The initiative is said to be an effort to combat climate change and promote Earth’s biodiversity by restoring the tundras. Inevitably, it has widely been met with ethical concerns as vast amounts of resources and money are redirected to the project. While it may be prudent to invest in saving endangered species rather than compensating with artificial hybrids, many rally behind Colossal, insisting that the project is a necessary resolution to protect our planet. These giants may soon roam the Earth again, and “Jurassic Park” references aside, what could go wrong?