A Colossal Undertaking: $15 Million Paves the Way for Woolly Mammoth Revival

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The ambitious plan could revive one of the most mysterious ancient mammals. (Image Credit: Bloomberg)

Scientists are embarking on a remarkable project to bring back woolly mammoths, extinct for ten thousand years, and reintroduce them to the Arctic tundra. Colossal, a bioscience and genetics-focused company co-founded by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard genetics professor George Church, has secured $15 million for this groundbreaking initiative.

The plan involves creating a hybrid of elephants and mammoths by developing embryos carrying mammoth DNA in a lab. Starting with skin cells from endangered Asian elephants, researchers transform these cells into versatile stem cells containing mammoth DNA. Comparative genomics between mammoths and Asian elephants help identify genes responsible for mammoth features.

Subsequent steps include implanting these embryos into surrogate mothers or artificial wombs, with the hope of welcoming the first calves in six years. Professor Church clarifies that the goal is to create a cold-resistant elephant-mammoth hybrid, not to deceive but to functionally replicate a mammoth, thriving in extreme cold and engaging in mammoth and elephant activities.

While framed as a solution to help endangered Asian elephants adapt to the Arctic, scientists believe introducing elephant-mammoth hybrids could restore degraded habitats and mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. This includes the potential restoration of Arctic grasslands through activities like tree knocking.

However, skepticism exists among scientists, with concerns about the feasibility of geoengineering the Arctic with mammoth herds. Some, like evolutionary biologist Dr. Victoria Herridge, question the scalability of such experiments due to the Arctic’s complex ecosystem.

Colossal’s broader goal is not just to bring back the mammoth but to reintroduce herds capable of interbreeding and rewilding the Arctic. The potential breeding compatibility of Asian elephants with these hybrids remains uncertain, with Professor Church humorously suggesting a need for a “little shave.”

Colossal emphasizes that woolly mammoths played a vital role in maintaining the Arctic’s health, prompting their efforts to bring them back. Initially considering Siberia, the project’s location may depend on global politics.

The near-identical DNA of woolly mammoths and Asian elephants is considered a key factor in the project’s potential success. Colossal’s belief in achieving this goal, despite skepticism, revolves around collecting DNA, changing genes through gene editing, and implanting woolly mammoth embryos into African elephants.

If successful, Colossal’s project could extend to resurrecting the thylacine (resembling a Tasmanian tiger), prompting ethical questions about the treatment of these creatures and potential challenges arising from their reintroduction into the world. The endeavor raises hopes for innovative climate solutions but underscores the importance of a responsible initiation to avoid unintended consequences in the intricate ecosystems of the Arctic.

Written by Paula Onuoha

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