A Texas entrepreneur and a Harvard geneticist have teamed up and announced plans to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction within a decade. Geneticist George Church has been working on the idea in his lab for a few years but it has been a barely funded project for most of that time. Now, entrepreneur Ben Lamm has helped him raise $15 million for a startup called Colossal which will attempt to create a baby mammoth in as little as four to six years.
After Lamm read an article about Church a little more than two years ago, he called the legend to propose collaborating on the kind of venture-capital-backed start-up that would have the resources to push the mammoth dream into reality. “Based on the technology available and what George is capable of, we would have mammoths already today if we had had the right amount of funding and focus on it over the past five years,” Lamm told me. He hopes the first mammoths since around 2000 BC will walk the earth in as few as four to six years, somewhere in Alaska, northern Canada, or Siberia.
Colossal will be based in Dallas (where the hardware will be built), Austin (where the software will be built), and Boston (where Church has his Harvard lab). The nascent team set out to raise $3 to $5 million to get started, Lamm said, but the intense interest from investors led it instead to haul in $15 million, from venture capital and private equity firms (famous ones, such as Silicon Valley’s Draper Associates, whose portfolio includes Tesla, Coinbase, and Twitch) as well as from some individual investors, including self-improvement guru Tony Robbins.
So how will this work? Church plans to identify the genes that make the woolly mammoth unique and able to survive in a frozen environment and then insert those genes into a cell from an Asian elephant.
“The Asian elephant is an endangered species. And so we want to preserve it,” Church said.
“There are two main things that are endangering it. One is a herpes virus. And the other is close proximity to humans. So we’d like to fix both of those and give them a new home, where there’s vast amounts of space with almost no humans, which is northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia.”
So Colossal aims to create an Asian elephant genetically modified with herpes virus resistance and the ability to withstand the ice-cold temperatures…
The genetically modified elephant would be implanted into an engineered endometrium at first, and then would grow in a bag, which would look similar to the artificial womb that Philadelphia scientists used to grow a genetically engineered lamb in 2017, Church said.
Church believes the mammoths, assuming they were able to repopulate in the arctic, would be good for the environment in a number of ways. They would help convert forests back into grasslands which are better at absorbing heat and storing carbon.
According to Dr. Church and other scientists, herds of woolly mammoth-looking elephants roaming the tundra is a containment strategy for an enormous, overlooked natural source of greenhouse gas.
A woolly mammoth-sized mammal could down trees and shrubs, allowing subzero air to cool the permafrost. Continued grazing would remove new tree seedlings while also compacting snow cover density, reducing heat-trapping. Furthermore, the mammal’s nutrient-rich droppings would promote grass growth.
The project is about carbon sequestration Dr. Church told IDT: “The Arctic has more carbon to lose in the form of methane and more to gain in the form of new grassroots that persist for centuries.”
All of this sounds a bit like Jurassic Park, which is to say a bit like science fiction but some of the things Dr. Church has already done sound that way as well. He is the founder of another company which has created genetically altered pigs which he believes will one day be used to create replacement organs for humans.
Cambridge startup eGenesis, co-founded in 2015 by genomics pioneer George Church, has raised $125 million in a Series C round as it prepares for an ambitious next step: transplanting its genetically edited pig organs into humans.
The company is using the gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 to create pigs whose kidneys are compatible with the human body. The pigs are designed to be free of viruses harmful to humans as well as genes associated with organ transplant rejection.
Here’s a video of Church talking about the modified pigs which formed a kind of proof of concept for what Colossal plans to do to with Asian elephant cells to bring back the Woolly Mammoth. It’s not science fiction if you can do it and really seems this guy can.