Story at a glance

  • A startup aims to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth and other species to promote conservation and sustainability.
  • Called Colossal, the research firm is helmed by investor Ben Lamm and raised $15 million in private funding.
  • Other scientists have asked questions of the ethics surrounding the company’s mission.

A first-of-its-kind startup officially launched on Monday with a bold mission that pushes the boundaries of flora and fauna conservation: de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

Colossal, a bioscience and genetics company with $15 million raised in private investment, aims to revive animal species that have been long classified as extinct, beginning with the wooly mammoth, an ancestor of today’s elephants that died out during the Holocene epoch more than 11,000 years ago (a few isolated populations survived until about 3,700 years ago).

Company leadership intends to resurrect the woolly mammoth using genetic sequencing and editing technology, specifically CRISPR. From there, Colossal will cultivate a de-extinction library of animals to resuscitate into the modern world. It also aims to harvest DNA and embryos from currently endangered species to prevent similar extinction patterns.

George Church, a Harvard genetics professor and Wyss Institute faculty member, is at the forefront of Colossal's research. Ben Lamm, a serial entrepreneur who has worked in the tech industry for years, is also a co-founder.

“Never before has humanity been able to harness the power of this technology to rebuild ecosystems, heal our Earth and preserve its future through the repopulation of extinct animals,” said Lamm in the press release. “In addition to bringing back ancient extinct species like the woolly mammoth, we will be able to leverage our technologies to help preserve critically endangered species that are on the verge of extinction and restore animals where humankind had a hand in their demise.”

Colossal’s website boasts dozens of statistics pointing to the potential mass extinction of nearly 20 percent of all species, mainly due to human disruption within natural ecosystems. 

Resurrecting the woolly mammoth is just the first step of Colossal’s broader mission to “de-extinct” other species and support ongoing conservation efforts. The company refers to this as “rewilding.”

Through Church’s previous research and current affiliation, Colossal launches with a research agreement alongside Church’s Harvard Medical School laboratory, where the resurrected woolly mammoth will be closer to a hybrid with modern-day elephants. Genetic engineering will give it traits necessary to survive cold Arctic temperatures as its ancestors did. 

Ideally, that species would be reintroduced in the Arctic tundras, where it could expose grasses that would increase carbon capture from the atmosphere. Thus, each species Colossal works to bring back to life would re-enter its former habitats and promote ecological balance for both animals and the larger environment. 

“Technologies discovered in pursuit of this grand vision – a living, walking proxy of a woolly mammoth – could create very significant opportunities in conservation and beyond, not least of which include inspiring public interest in STEM, prompting timely discussions in bioethics, and raising awareness of the vital importance of biodiversity,” Church said.

Questions, excitement and skepticism all naturally arise from this kind of announcement. Victoria Herridge, a palaeontologist at the United Kingdom’s Natural History Museum, voiced her opinions in an article on the company’s launch.  

“There are a lot of questions raised by this project. The key ethical points are the aspects of animal experimentation and husbandry: what is this creature? Is it a new species? How many do you need?” she asks, emphasizing questions surrounding the ethics of the company. “Then if they succeed, what will the needs be of an intelligent social creature? And what are our obligations to it?”

Published on Sep 13, 2021