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Weekly Wonder

Manny from Ice Age

It might be time for the return of the woolly mammoth. It’s going to be tackled by Colossal, the company co-founded by Harvard genetics professor George Church and entrepreneur John Lamm, which raised $15m.

  • Except, Colossal’s not actually bringing it back, it’s creating a whole new species that’s close to, but not an exact replica of the woolly mammoth: de-extinction.

If it sounds a bit like the beginning of Jurassic Park, well, it is and it’s not. It’s true that the $15m seed round was led by Thomas Tull, former CEO of Legendary Entertainment (responsible for Jurassic World). But this isn’t cloning in the traditional sense. And woolly mammoths aren’t likely to go on a rampage and eat us all… So how do scientists plan to resurrect the mammoth, and why would anyone want to do such a thing? We dig a bit deeper.

Click To Watch On Youtube

How is this possible?

  • Colossal scientists will use CRISPR-Cas 9 gene-editing technology to create a totally new species.
  • They’ll add 60 or more genes from the woolly mammoth to the cells of an embryo from its closest living relative, the Asian elephant. If that sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the Chinese scientist who controversially used the same technology on human embryos in 2018, which later landed him in prison.

Colossal has been experimenting with the technology for some time, according to Popular Science: “In 2015, Church’s lab successfully integrated mammoth genes for small ears, fatty tissue, and shaggy brown hair into the DNA of elephant skin cells.”

The science part can get pretty complicated, but basically, CRISPR is “an enzyme that can bind and cut specific sites on a strand of DNA.” Popular Science explains, “…It’s paired with other DNA-editing enzymes to splice genes from the woolly mammoth into the Asian elephant.” This helps it adapt better to the freezing Arctic weather.

  • First, the team needs to take a sample of and sequence the woolly mammoth genome from a frozen carcass.
  • Next, they’ll check to ensure the genes correspond to the traits they want: big, check; woolly, check; mammoth-y, check.
  • Then, they synthesize the genes and place them into the embryo of another animal — they’ll do this using mouse and pig models first, later using Asian elephants.
  • The elephant then gives birth to a woolly mammoth, or that’s the idea, anyway.

Church and his team are also working on creating a synthetic womb.

Why bring back the mammoth?

Back when mammoths roamed the earth, they played a huge role in stabilizing the arctic ecosystem, the permafrost in particular. Large herbivores encourage the growth of light-colored steppe grass which reflects sunlight back into the environment, thus reducing the heat absorbed by the earth, lowering the temperature, and reducing permafrost melting.

As The Guardian explains, “Arctic permafrost is estimated to contain four times as much carbon as we humans have emitted since the Industrial Revolution.” With the emissions we’re now creating, scientists expect 40% of that permafrost to melt by the end of the century — it’s a ticking time bomb. It’s hoped reintroducing the woolly mammoth — or a creature close to it — could change things, as well as increasing biodiversity.

The same permafrost means many well-preserved mammoth specimens are available to study, allowing scientists access to full genome sequences, as well as information on how the creatures evolved over time.

Colossal’s goal for bringing back the mammoth is to “combat the effects of climate change through ecosystem restoration.” In the long-term that could prevent extinction or even bring back species that are critically endangered.

Read more: Woolly — The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Species by Ben Mezrich.

Not a new idea

This isn’t a new project for George Church — he’s been working on it at Harvard for almost a decade, while Penn State University scientists have been in discussion about cloning a mammoth since 2010.

Others have too:

  • Back in 2019 in Japan, scientists made a breakthrough in cloning a mammoth after recovering cells from a 28,000-year-old specimen that showed signs of life. These cells were implanted in mouse cells, with five specimens demonstrating “the biological reactions required for cell division to begin,” according to a study published in Scientific Reports — though none produced the cell division needed to actually bring a mammoth back to life.
  • In Russia, father and son team Sergei and Nikita Zimour have been working on their Pleistocene Park experiment since the 80s, reintroducing Pleistocene-era creatures like bison and Yakut horses to a roped-off area of the Siberian Tundra.
  • Simply reintroducing these creatures can lower the permafrost temperature by up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Are there risks?

While a full-blown Jurassic-Park-style scenario seems unlikely, de-extinction isn’t without its risks. Jesse Reynolds, researcher at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California wrote a paper Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, where he noted “some conservationist synthetic biology” could pose risks to the environment.

  • The problem is, we don’t know exactly what those risks are, as CRISPR has, up until now, mostly been used in controlled settings like labs — for example in mosquitoes.

Re-wilding a species that’s been dead for thousands of years could have serious ramifications, such as displacing other species, or even spreading a new disease — and there are ethical and moral considerations too. But this is less about playing God and more about correcting our mistakes.

  • The woolly mammoth’s huge size makes it ideal for radio and other tracking mechanisms, so if anything goes wrong, there’s an, ahem, “undo” button.

When could we see mammoth calves?

So when could we first bump into a woolly mammoth-type creature roaming the Siberian tundra? Sooner than you might think. The capital Colossal has received should fund the team as they develop a viable mammoth embryo. If their plans stay on track, we could see the first calves from the project in four to six years, and that’s if other scientists don’t get there first.

Tech Calendar

  • September 22: Microsoft Surface Event (possibly Surface Duo 2, new Surface laptop, new Surface Pro)
  • October 4: Android 12 stable release date
  • October 7: Far Cry 6 release date (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, XSX, Stadia)
  • October 12: Back 4 Blood release date (PS4, PS5, Xbox One, XSX, PC)
  • October 19: Possible Pixel 6 release date?

Tech Tweet of the Week

First: Well, that escalated quickly.

Pink and black sign at the bottom of an escalator which says "This escalator is refusing to escalate. This has been escalated to the engineer who is on his way up (or down) to check it out.



Have an out-of-this-world week!

Paula Beaton, Copy Editor