Colossal Biosciences is Charging Toward Woolly Mammoth De-Extinction

Colossal Biosciences

Extinction is one of society’s most pressing conundrums. With the U.N. reporting that over 1 million species are at current risk of extinction, many experts believe that we’re on the brink of a sixth mass extinction event with the potential to disrupt worldwide ecology and deplete us of irreplaceable ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, water cycling, and climate regulation.

As we face biodiversity losses at a rate of up to 100 times what’s normal, companies like Colossal Biosciences are stepping up to develop innovative conservation methods and explore the possibility of de-extinction.

“Humans are already responsible for the extinction of so many creatures, and species are now disappearing at a rate so quickly that evolution simply cannot keep up. One could argue that if we’re going to wipe out animals we should give them a fighting chance, right?” Beth Shapiro, Ph.D., Colossal’s chief science officer, told Wired magazine.

With the company dedicated to reviving an ambitious set of species — from the woolly mammoth to the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger — it certainly has a long list of work cut out for itself, including the development of artificial wombs, induced pluripotent stem cells for gene editing, and preserving the habitats these species require, to name just a few.

Gene Editing an End to Extinction

Since extinct species like the woolly mammoth, dodo, and Tasmanian tiger don’t have living DNA and therefore can’t be cloned, Colossal Biosciences is leveraging novel gene editing technology like CRISPR to edit the genomes of these species’ modern relatives — the Asian elephant, Nicobar pigeon, and fat-tailed dunnart — with ancient traits that make them resemble their extinct counterparts.

While this process requires detailed genomic sequences and precise gene edits, Shapiro told Gizmodo in a recent interview that the innovative landscape of biotechnology continues to advance the company’s pioneering efforts, although at an unpredictable rate.

“There’s been a lot of progress in gene editing and the precision of on-target gene edits and being able to move large bits of DNA into a genome at the same time. All of that is stuff that we would need,” she said. “There’s been a lot of work done in ancient DNA: We now have many more woolly mammoth genomes … which is helping us to narrow down what edits we would need to make.”

Recently, the company made a significant breakthrough in the woolly mammoth’s de-extinction by developing the world’s first elephant induced pluripotent stem cells, representing a crucial step in the gene editing process. Unlike regular stem cells, iPSCs can propagate indefinitely from a single source, and be reprogrammed into any cell in the body, ideal for multiplex editing.

The team at Colossal Biosciences is now working to mature these cells and use them to establish a model for synthetic elephant embryos that can be used to perfect the editing process and learn more about the gestation and development of elephants and woolly mammoths alike.

“Elephants might get the ‘hardest to reprogram’ prize, but learning how to do it anyway will help many other studies, especially on endangered species,” said George Church, Harvard geneticist and Colossal co-founder. “This milestone gives us insights into developmental biology and the balance between senescence and cancer. It opens the door for obtaining gametes and other cell types without surgery on precious animals. It opens the door to establishing connections between genes and traits for both modern and extinct relatives — including resistance to environmental extremes and pathogens. This collaboration has been a true pleasure and a colossal accelerant for our challenging project.”

Designing Ecosystems for De-Extinct Animals

 Given the centuries that have passed since some of these animals roamed Earth, it should come as no surprise that a vital part of the de-extinction process involves tailoring modern habitats for revived species and vice versa.

“A goal here is to create an animal that can be physically and psychologically well in the environment in which it lives,” Shapiro said to Scientific American. “If we are going to bring back something that’s functionally equivalent to a dodo, then we will have to find, identify, or create habitats in which they’re able to survive.”

Colossal maintains close partnerships with a variety of local organizations that have a stake in the rewilding of extinct species and continues to invest in the groundwork to ensure the survival of any potential de-extinct populations.

Whether it’s canvassing the island nation of Mauritius for dodo habitats, determining the Arctic’s carrying capacity for woolly mammoths, or working with Indigenous groups to understand the impacts of an apex predator like the Tasmanian tiger, Colossal Biosciences is hard at work to guarantee the ecological resistance of these returned species and their local communities.

It’s the topic of a Colossal Biosciences study published in Scientific Report in April. In it, Colossal is trying “to estimate the carrying capacity of mammoths — the carrying capacity of Arctic ecosystems for mammoths,” Shapiro told Gizmodo. “Thinking about things like, how much food would there be? How much space would you need? How many other species are there? What would the feedbacks be as far as the climate goes? And so, there definitely is interest in trying to predict ecosystem impacts way before the potential of actually having any ecosystem impacts. Because clearly thinking about what would happen when we have animals that really are released on the landscape is critical to being able to make these projects move forward.”

Colossal Biosciences Progressing Past De-Extinction Challenges

 As the world’s first de-extinction company, Colossal Biosciences operates in uncharted territory and remains pragmatic about the challenges it faces. While de-extinction is still many scientific discoveries away from becoming a reality, the company is confident that its efforts will continue to develop and inform the conservation movement and biosciences as a whole.

“All of these are technologies that have application across genetic rescue and also even human health landscapes,” Shapiro said. “By giving us this moon shot — by saying we’re going to get to a mammoth — we have created a path. We have created a moon shot that forces us through these technologies in a way that I think otherwise we might not get there.”

During a time when some scientists estimate as many as 150 species go extinct each day, ambitious conservation efforts like Colossal’s have become a major source of scientific innovation, making projects like this invaluable regardless of the outcome.

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