This New Company Says It's Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth, As A Way to Fight Climate Change
"We've found a way to harness CRISPR's power for species de-extinction."
The woolly mammoth was last seen roughly 10,000 years ago, during the Ice Age. Can bringing it back help cool our warming planet now?
That’s the bold idea put forward by Colossal, a bioscience and genetics engineering company that launches today — and is backed by Harvard University and some of the world’s most forward-thinking scientists.
Fighting climate change with mammoths may seem crazy, but it has decades of research behind it — including the work of George Church, Ph.D., a world-renowned pioneer in genomics. Church runs a lab at Harvard and has been exploring how to genetically re-engineer the woolly mammoth using its closest living relative, the Asian Elephant.
The reason is this: One of the greatest threats to the earth is the melting of the arctic permafrost and its massive release of the greenhouse gasses that are stored safely in its freeze. When the herds of woolly mammoth and other animals vanished, that area became covered with a forest that keeps the earth warmer. Church is betting on the idea that a resurrected population of the mammoths, if let loose in the arctic, would chomp and stomp down the bush and trees, exposing the earth to subzero temperatures and allowing the tundra’s original grasslands to grow back. That ecosystem, maintained by the large creatures, would then effectively sequester carbon, rather than allowing it back into the atmosphere.
In the process of reviving the mammoth, Colossal says, it will also develop technologies that can help people and the planet in a multitude of other ways. “We’ve found a way to harness CRISPR’s power for species de-extinction," Church says. "However, gene editing has the potential to impact all aspects of life — from animal de-extinction and ecosystem restoration, to disease prevention and creating more sustainable human bodies.”
And of course, humans will be able to reunite with one of our most romanticized extinct animals — that shaggy creature with magnificent tusks that swoop like a double staircase.
Although Church has been doing this research for years, it wasn’t until a big-thinking Texan serial entrepreneur named Ben Lamm came along that anyone created a company to put it into practice.
Lamm has founded five previous startups, and his most recent, Hypergiant, is working on carbon-gobbling algae reactors, satellite constellations operated from a mobile phone, and internet service to Mars. But in May of 2021, Lamm stepped down as CEO to co-found Colossal with Church and three others, because he was so compelled by the radical approach to fighting climate change.
Will this zany woolly mammoth idea work? What if they can’t scale a population big enough to cut down the forest? What if their proxy species causes unforeseen repercussions? What if the cost is prohibitive?
But what if … it works? Lamm says it’s worth taking that moonshot. Here, he discusses the wild new enterprise and some of its implications.
Tell me about the jump from Hypergiant into a Colossal. I do note a similar vibe in the name.
I like big things [laugh]. And I think the brand should represent the mission of what you're doing. Woolly mammoths are not small and this undertaking is not small.
So yeah, I was familiar with George’s work, and then about two and half years ago I read this article on his desire to bring back the Woolly Mammoth. And I thought, well, that's a cool idea. But first, can he do it? And then should he do it? So I started reading other articles about Pleistocene rewilding and how we can return the arctic back to grasslands, and about genetic rescue and species preservation. Between now and 2050, it’s projected that we're going to lose [up to] 50% of all biodiversity on earth — and how can you genetically catalog that? So I just picked up the phone and was like, “Can I speak to Dr. George Church?”
You personally called or had your assistant call?
No, no, no. I called. And we talked. I didn't sleep that night. And within two months I was at the lab. What I found was that all the hard science had been solved. To achieve the goal was really a factor of funding. So we started a plan.
When you talk about bringing back the woolly mammoth and other extinct species, the idea is to tweak the genomes so they can survive in a new habitat—and even use the same techniques to help species on the verge of extinction overcome what’s killing them off?
Colossal has an exclusive license deal with Harvard. Was that hard to negotiate?
We worked on it for quite a while. But in the end, we were able to secure exclusively on the technologies around de-extinction. We also entered into sponsored research so we have an ongoing relationship with the Church lab continuing to innovate on some of these technologies.
What's the estimated cost to get to woolly? I would think the $15 million you have raised wouldn’t go very far.
This is just a seed round and we have enough capital to get to viable embryos. But we will go out and raise a Series A at the appropriate time. The capital that we have raised so far wasn’t the traditional Sand Hill roadshow. We’ve been very selective. We're going to build a lot of technologies that we think can monetize over time, but you need to have the right type of investor to focus on that. And I think we did a really good job of pulling together the Thomas Tulls and the Richard Garriotts who really support the mission and the science.
Fair enough, but, if you had to ballpark a cost?
George has been working on this for years. Understanding the trait verification that creates the shaggy coat, the distributed fat, the cold tolerant hemoglobin, and the small ears of a Woolly Mammoth — all that work's been done. But genetic engineering is expensive. We don't have a hard estimate on how much it costs to make a mammoth, though we've got some good ideas.
And how long do you think it will take?
Our goal was to have our first calves in the next four to six years. And it takes 18 to 22 months for the gestation of an elephant as we know it today. Then it takes about 13 years for an elephant to reach sexual maturity.
What kinds of commercial applications are you imagining?
I think of us as similar to the Apollo Program, because many incredibly valuable and monetizable technologies come out of that — like GPS and the fundamentals of the internet. With Colossal I think we’ll develop some really strong advancements in being able to edit genotypes and phenotypes, for example. Also we’re working to figure out whether we use surrogacy or artificial wombs. So we’ll have a de-extinction toolkit that we can also use to preserve species that are critically endangered, which goes under the umbrella of thoughtful, disruptive conservation, which is a big mantra of the company.
What’s to stop bad actors from using some of these technologies to tweak a species into some kind of monster? As a company, how do you deal with those concerns?
As long as we’re transparent, people can hold us accountable. Our scientific advisory board includes top scientists, top bioethicists, top conservationists. You know, genetic technologies like CRISPR have so much opportunity to advance the world—from better crops to curing genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia. Hopefully our focus on the Woolly Mammoth will also be an inspiring story that brings more awareness to conservation and climate change around the world.
What other species are dear to your heart?
The Sumatran Rhino and the Tasmanian Devil are two I’d like to save. People think of Tasmanian Devils as Looney Tunes and guys spiraling around in a tornado, but they’re actually these feisty, cute little creatures. And the species is being attacked by inbreeding and diseases.
But I have also really fallen in love with the Woolly Mammoth. Like, we should be so lucky that 10,000 years from now, after we're gone, we’ll be adored like this creature that no one's ever seen.