Scientists Plan to Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth This Decade
Graphic: Mark Garlick/Getty ImagesThousands of years ago, herds of woolly mammoths roamed the tundra of Asia, Europe, and North America. Then, they vanished along with most other megafauna. That was right around the time humans began spreading across the globe. Weird, right? Whether or not our ancestors were directly responsible for the extinction of the woolly mammoth, this is one extinction we might be able to undo. A new startup led by Harvard scientist George Church and serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm aims to use the CRISPR gene-editing technique to restore mammoths (or something like them) to Earth by the late 2020s.
The company, known as Colossal, has picked up $15 million in funding to begin work on the project. This is not a Jurassic Park scenario — Colossal isn’t going to clone the original woolly mammoth species. Instead, it will use CRISPR to make modifications to the genome of the endangered Asian elephant, a creature that shares over 99.9 percent of its DNA with its extinct cousin.
According to Church, who has been musing about resurrecting the mammoth for years, the team has already identified the mammoth genes that gave the animals shaggy coats, small ears, and more body fat. Theoretically, it should be possible to add these genes to the Asian elephant to create something that looks an awful lot like a woolly mammoth. These animals would be able to survive the intense cold in northern latitudes just like the original animals.
Colossal hopes that resurrecting the mammoth will bring attention to climate change and the loss of species. While there won’t be a Jurassic Park-style tourist attraction, Colossal has identified a 60 square mile region in northern Russia where researchers can test ideas about rewilding — that is, reintroducing the engineered mammoths into the environment. Among other things, Colossal believes that mammoths could help remake the land by knocking down trees and trampling the ground to eliminate snow cover. That could lead to the return of grasslands that insulate the ground and prevent seasonal thawing, which is breaking down permafrost and releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane greenhouse gases as the planet warms.
Not everyone is convinced that de-extinction is the best use of time and energy when it comes to protecting the environment. However, Colossal contends that this technology could eventually help bring back other species and even prevent others from going extinct by increasing the genetic diversity of endangered creatures.
In order to make any of this happen, Colossal will need to develop new genetic tools and possibly even artificial womb technology. Even if the effort to resurrect the mammoth is unsuccessful, those technologies could be valuable. That helps explain why investors were ready to pump $15 million into a moonshot company. If Colossal can turn vision into reality, the first engineered mammoths could be born as soon as 2027.