With the United Nations reporting that up to 1 million plant and animal species are currently at risk of extinction, many organizations — including the CIA — are investing in de-extinction technology as a safety net for Earth’s biodiversity.
Despite pushback from those who envision de-extinction as the real-life equivalent of the Jurassic Park film franchise, the de-extinction movement has noble intentions and is more than just science fiction. Real-world de-extinction has become centered at the core of environmentalism, with the lofty goals of preserving genetic diversity and restoring ecosystems ravaged by climate change and human interference.
Colossal Biosciences, a biotechnology and genetic engineering startup valued at over $1 billion, is one company working to position de-extinction at the forefront of the conservation movement. Grounded by the philosophy of disruptive conservation (or the use of modern technology to forward species and ecosystem preservation), Colossal is using novel genetic modification and genomic sequencing techniques to bring back lost species like the woolly mammoth and protect living species that are at high risk of elimination, like the elephant.
According to scientists, woolly mammoths grazing in the tundra can potentially help pack in permafrost and promote grassland habitats, decreasing the tundra’s temperatures and preventing carbon-emitting ice melts.
As Colossal’s co-founder and world-renowned geneticist George Church said in a press release, “Colossal leverages the exponential progress made in technologies for reading and writing DNA and applies it to iconic ecological conservation and carbon sequestration issues.”
De-Extinction: The Answer to Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event
Mass extinction events, defined as the rapid loss of 75% of Earth’s biodiversity, have occurred five times over the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history. The last mass extinction event, known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction, occurred 66 million years ago and is well known for bringing an end to dinosaurs roaming the Earth.
Today, many experts believe we’re on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction event, with one study finding that if all currently threatened or endangered mammals vanish by the end of the century, this rate will lead to a mass extinction event within the next 334 years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the current extinction crisis is fueled by humanity’s impact on climate change and deforestation.
While extinction is occurring at the concerning rate of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times what is natural and a mass extinction is potentially around the corner, the imminent possibility of bringing back extinct species sparks hope of reversing this doomed fate.
By returning previously extinct species to their ecosystem, de-extinction acts as a tool for rewilding desolate natural areas. Species chosen for de-extinction often fill a significant role in an ecosystem, meaning their return can revitalize an ecosystem’s function and restore lost ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, and flooding and erosion protections.
As Colossal co-founder and CEO Ben Lamm told online news platform Dallas Innovates, “Ecosystems depend on megafauna species, and when these species go extinct, the ecosystem collapses … Bringing animals back to their natural habitat not only restores animal populations, but can shield ecosystems from destruction and rebuild its climate-controlling properties.”
More Than Just a Clone
While many believe de-extinction can only be achieved with cloning, there are several pathways toward de-extinction, as the process has been attempted for over 100 years and remains ever-evolving. According to a paper by evolutionary biologist and Colossal’s chief paleogeneticist Beth Shapiro, the three main pathways to de-extinction include back breeding, cloning, and genetic engineering.
The first publicized attempt to bring back an extinct species was made in the 1920s when German biologists Heinz and Lutz Heck began selectively cross-breeding domestic cattle with traits of the aurochs, a domesticated European cattle that had officially died out from disease in 1627.
Once considered the largest mammals in all of Europe, aurochs were vital in maintaining the continent’s grasslands due to their insatiable herbivorous diet. They helped create space for new plants to grow and provide ecosystems for insects and birds to thrive. Since the aurochs is a close ancestor of many European cattle subspecies, back-breeding was recognized as a way to reintroduce a functionally similar species to the wild.
While the Heck cattle created by the Heck brothers in the 1920s still lacked a true morphologic similarity to the aurochs, this project has been used to inform modern aurochs rewilding programs such as the Tauros Programme.
More recent attempts at de-extinction include the 2003 cloning of the Pyrenean ibex — a subspecies of the Spanish ibex commonly known as a bucardo. While the bucardo was declared extinct after its last known individual was killed by a falling branch in 2000, scientists were able to clone an embryo by inserting bucardo DNA into a domestic goat’s eggs.
Bucardo embryos were implanted in 57 goats to bring back the subspecies, but the project was riddled with complications. Only seven of the 57 implanted goats got pregnant, with a single individual coming to full term. When the bucardo was born, it only lived for seven minutes due to lung abnormalities and respiratory failure.
Colossal Biosciences: The Future of De-Extinction
Past attempts at de-extinction may have been mired with flawed and varied results, but thanks to advancements in genomic sequencing and editing largely pioneered by co-founder George Church, Colossal Biosciences is closer than ever to bringing back the extinct woolly mammoth. Using a modern gene-editing tool known as CRISPR, Colossal is working to genetically engineer the DNA of an elephant with sequences of mammoth DNA. The hope is to create a cold-resistant hybrid species with an ecological niche similar to the woolly mammoth.
“We’re just targeting about 65 genes that represent the cold tolerance, the core phenotypes that we’re looking for,” Colossal CEO Ben Lamm said during an interview at the 2023 SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas. Colossal will use these genes to eventually develop an elephant embryo with a genome similar to the mammoth.
While some experts anticipate the mammoth implantation and surrogacy process to mirror that of the bucardo, Colossal is working on innovative ways to bring an individual successfully to term. With a mammoth’s full gestation period lasting anywhere from 18 to 22 months, one method includes the use of an artificial womb.
This artificial womb would be a container similar to an amniotic sac, filled with fluid to support the organism throughout its development. Artificial wombs may be an incredibly new and underdeveloped technology, but Colossal has its brightest minds working on the mechanics to support this endeavor.
Scientists at Colossal are currently creating a synthetic placenta for the artificial womb, along with a uterine lining that the umbilical cord can connect to. The company hopes that the use of artificial wombs along with African elephant surrogates will allow for the first woolly mammoth calf by 2028.
With the Earth is hurtling closer and closer to its next mass extinction event, investing in de-extinction technology is becoming crucial to safeguarding our biodiversity and protecting us from climate change. Despite their ambitious and often audacious goals, the brains at Colossal Biosciences are already revolutionizing the de-extinction movement and forging the future of conservation.