Woolly mammoths could walk Earth again if CRISPR startup is successful – .

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Woolly mammoths could walk Earth again if CRISPR startup is successful – .


Colossal hopes to help bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction.

Getty Images/Orla

You’ve heard of startups creating computer chips, delivery drones, and video chat apps. One of them, Colossal, has a different goal: to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction by 2027 using CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technology.

The plan is not to recreate real woolly mammoths, but rather to bring their cold-adapted genetic traits, which include small ears and more body fat, to their elephant cousins, creating a hybrid that can roam around. the tundra where mammoths haven’t been seen for 10,000 years. The co-founders of Colossal are CEO Ben Lamm, who launched five companies previously, and George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School with deep CRISPR expertise.

“Our true North Star is a successful restoration of the woolly mammoth, but also its successful rewilding in crossbreed herds in the Arctic,” Lamm said. “We are now focusing on our first calves for the next four to six years. “

It’s an interesting illustration of an imperative sweeping the tech world: don’t just make money, help the planet too. Tesla’s mission is to electrify transportation to get rid of fossil fuels that harm the Earth. Bolt Threads wants to replace leather with an equivalent based on fungal fibers that is more environmentally friendly than animal agriculture. Colossal hopes its work will draw attention to biodiversity issues and ultimately help solve them.

Colossal has raised $ 15 million so far, led by investment firm Tulco. The startup’s 19 employees work out of its Dallas headquarters and offices in Boston and Austin, Texas, and it is using its funds to hire more.

Artificial matrices and other technological benefits

Church said he expects spinoffs from the company’s biotechnology and genetics work.

“The pipeline of large-scale genome engineering techniques can be applied to many other applications beyond de-extinction, and therefore [are] most promising for commercialization, ”he said.

One technology ripe for commercialization is multiplex genome engineering, a technique Church helped develop that speeds up gene editing by making multiple DNA changes at once.

Colossal also hopes to develop artificial uteri to grow his mammoth embryos. Raising 10 woolly mammoths with elephant surrogate mothers is not enough to reach the large-scale herds envisioned by the company.

CRISPR is the foundation of Colossal’s work. This technology, adapted from a method developed by bacteria to identify attacking viruses and slice their DNA, is now a mainstay of genetic engineering, and Church has been involved since the early days of CRISPR.

There are other ways Colossal hopes to help. Its gene-editing technology could artificially add genetic diversity to species with only small surviving populations, Lamm said.

Tourism at Jurassic Park? Nope

Selling or licensing a derivative technology is a somewhat indirect way of running a business. A more direct option is to sell tickets to tourists. After all, humans already pay a lot of money to see charismatic megafauna like lions, elephants, and giraffes on African safaris. Seeing a creature that has been missing for 10,000 years might add to the excitement.

But that’s not Colossal’s game plan. “We are currently focused on preserving species and protecting biodiversity, not placing them in zoos,” Lamm said. By recreating woolly mammoths, Colossal can preserve the genetic heritage of the now endangered Asian elephants.

Another candidate species Colossal wants to recreate is the woolly rhino, a relative of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino.

While Colossal doesn’t plan to build a tourist destination, he does have a woolly mammoth rewilding site in mind that sounds awfully close to Jurassic Park: Pleistocene Park. This area of ​​about 60 square miles in northern Russia, named after the geological period that ended with the last ice age, is where researchers Sergey and Nikita Zimov are trying to test their theories on the ecological and climatic effects of rewilding.

One idea of ​​Zimov is that woolly mammoths will trample on snow and cut down trees. This, in turn, will restore grasslands that reflect the sun’s warming rays more and remove insulating snow and forests so the ground cools down further. And that means the ground will stay frozen instead of releasing its current reserve of carbon dioxide and methane greenhouse gases. About 260 to 300 billion metric tons of carbon could be released by thawing permafrost by 2300, scientists calculate, exacerbating extreme weather events and other problems caused by climate change.

Is species de-extinction a good idea?

There is a call for the idea of ​​extinction. Humans have dramatically changed the planet, and the United Nations estimates that we are threatening 1 million species with extinction as a result.

Colossal hopes its work will draw more attention to the collapse of biodiversity. And he also plans to create detailed genetic descriptions of many endangered species “so that we have the recipe if this species goes extinct,” Lamm said.

But is this really the best use of our resources to help the planet? No, some researchers believe.

Resurrection of species could have some benefits, but the money would be better spent protecting those that still exist, argued a group of biologists in an article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. “The potential sacrifices in the conservation of existing species should be a critical consideration in deciding whether to invest in de-extinction or to focus our efforts on existing species,” the researchers wrote.

But it’s not government money Colossal is talking about, and Lamm argues that his startup’s work complements other conservation efforts. And, he argues, startups can scale faster than government-funded work.

In a world dominated by the headlines of the climate crisis, a startup that makes money by focusing on improving ecosystems has a special appeal. One investor, Zack Lynch of Jazz Venture Partners, is excited about the software, hardware and biotechnology he expects Colossal to create.

At the same time, “these advances will help address issues such as land degradation, loss of animal pollinators and other negative trends in biodiversity,” said Lynch. Given the magnitude of our environmental issues, you can see why an investor might be interested.

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