Complex Made Simple

Exciting animal de-extinction efforts distracting from more urgent ecological actions

A startup plans to bring back the woolly mammoth from the dead, some 4000 years after it roamed the Arctic and went extinct. That would be something, but it would not serve earth's immediate ecological needs, experts say

Close to 1000 animal species alone have died off in the last 500 years Earth is probably losing a species or more a day Following a 4-6 year de-extinction effort, it would take another 14 years for the mammoth to reproduce

Armed with $15 million in funding from investors, a startup plans to bring back the woolly mammoth from the dead, some 4000 years after it roamed the Arctic and went extinct when early humans began hunting them for food and using their bones as tools. The startup is partially funded by Harvard University’s renowned geneticist, George Church, and the company is called Colossal.

The project was aided by the finding of well-preserved mammoth remains that hold bits of mammoths’ DNA in them. Combining these with recent technological developments in the field, the resurrection or “de-extinction,” as it is called, is quite possible, the company says. 

A multi-step approach

The company has condensed the entire process into a 13-step high-level plan on its website. The first step begins with the sourcing and then sequencing of the genome of the Asian elephant, a mammal that is reported to share 99.6% of its DNA with the woolly mammoth. The team will then sequence the genome of the woolly mammoth that the researchers in George Church’s Harvard Lab secured in 2018. 

Using CRISPR, a game-changing technology that can be used to edit genes, the team will then edit the genome of the Asian elephant and verify if the edited cells demonstrate abilities to survive in cold environments. Once this is confirmed, they will insert the editing nucleus in an egg cell and then fertilize it artificially. Once complete, the cell will develop into an embryo that will then be implanted in an African elephant for the gestation of up to 22 months, bringing the woolly mammoth back on Earth.

Colossal also wants to create an artificial uterus to carry the embryo, which would take about two years to develop into a 200-pound fetus and it believes we could see their first woolly mammoth calves in the next 4 to 6 years.  

De-extinction’s positive impact on climate, ecology

Dubbed the “sixth mass extinction,” our modern era has been marked by an acceleration in species loss. Close to 1000 animal species alone have died off in the last 500 years.

In her 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes that current models predict the loss of up to half of all living species in the next century.

Colossal believes that returning the woolly mammoth to the Arctic grasslands will help in arresting the effects of climate change, as nomadic mammoths, during their time on earth, traversed vast regions in the Artic and conserved its environmental health. Restoring the mammoth to its habitat will help in methane suppression and carbon sequestration, thereby helping climate change. 

Audacious projects to bring back the likes of woolly mammoths, Tasmanian tigers, and passenger pigeons, have now accelerated and the proponents of de-extinction are doing it in the name of ecology.

De-extinction opponents

Ecologists and biologists told The Verge that mammoths are a poor choice for de-extinction as it might steal the spotlight from more important conservation efforts.

“I guess I confess, the five-year-old in me would just love to see a mammoth,” says Joseph Bennett, an assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Department of Biology at Carleton University. “It’s just fascinating from a scientific standpoint. But if it’s called conservation, and if it’s called fighting climate change, that’s when the problems arise.”

Earth is probably losing a species or more a day, according to Bennett. With evidence of a mass extinction taking place, resurrecting a prehistoric creature is low on the priority list of efforts protecting biodiversity on our planet.

“Even within endangered species that we want to keep from going extinct, we have to prioritize what are the winners and the losers,” says Ginger Allington, a landscape ecologist and assistant professor at George Washington University.

Funding de-extinction could hurt other conservation efforts by siphoning off limited resources, Bennett’s previous research has found.

Spending the same amount of money on traditional conservation efforts could save up to eight times more species than if the money was to be spent on de-extinction. The Asian elephant itself could use help; its numbers have dropped in half over the past three generations.

Colossal, on the other hand, thinks the animals, if and when they start reproducing en masse, could essentially re-engineer ecosystems, turning mossy tundra back to grasslands that once thrived with mammoths’ help 10,000 years ago. Without mammoths roaming grasslands. plains were slowly replaced by moss and trees. That poses problems for the planet because snow-covered grasslands in the Arctic are better at reflecting radiation from the sun than darker shrublands or woodlands. Bringing herds back could theoretically reverse that trend.

The problem is, following the 4-6 year de-extinction effort by Colossal, it would take another 14 years or so for their first animal to be old enough to reproduce.

From there, the efforts would need to scale up massively to have any meaningful effect on the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Experts argue it’s nowhere near soon enough to help save coral reefs, which will need global emissions to drop by half by the end of the decade if they are to survive, an area that needs more urgent action today.