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Company seeks to resurrect the woolly mammoth, return extinct animal to the Arctic

woolly mammoth (JLS Photography - Alaska/Flickr)
September 19, 2021

A company launched on Monday wants to resurrect an animal that went extinct thousands of years ago: the woolly mammoth

Colossal, founded by Ben Lamm, a technology and software entrepreneur, and George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School, is hoping to “rapidly advance the field of species de-extinction,” according to a news release from the company.

That goal includes using gene-editing “to restore the woolly mammoth to the Arctic tundra,” according to the release.

The research will involve reprogramming elephant DNA with mammoth characteristics, like thick hair and layers of fat, to help the hybrid animals survive in the Siberian tundra, according to multiple reports. Researchers have targeted 60 genes that make up the mammoth’s distinctive characteristics, and they will use elephant eggs or tissue.

Researchers believe that, if the mammoths can be created, they could revitalize grasslands in the Arctic. Colossal in its Monday news release said that could have “major climate change-combatting properties including carbon sequestering, methane suppression and light reflection.”

Researchers are hoping to produce embryos of the creatures in a few years, according to multiple reports.

The project is not new territory for Church, who is a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. For eight years, he has been leading a group researching methods of creating mammoths, The New York Times reported.

Colossal was launched with $15 million in funding, including investments from Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twins who rose to fame after suing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The project has garnered concerns from other researchers. Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum in London, told the Guardian, “My personal thinking is that the justifications given — the idea that you could geoengineer the Arctic environment using a heard of mammoths — isn’t plausible.”

“The scale at which you’d have to do this experiment is enormous. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of mammoths which each take 22 months to gestate and 30 years to grow to maturity,” she added.

Gareth Phoenix, a professor of plant and global change ecology at the University of Sheffield, told the outlet, “While we do need a multitude of different approaches to stop climate change, we also need to initiate solutions responsibly to avoid unintended damaging consequences.”

“Mammoths are proposed as a solution to help stop permafrost thaw because they will remove trees, trample and compact the ground and convert landscapes to grassland, which can help keep the ground cool,” he said. “However, we know in the forested Arctic regions that trees and moss cover can be critical in protecting permafrost, so removing the trees and trampling the moss would be the last thing you’d want to do.”

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