SXSW 2022 – Austin Biotech Startup Colossal Wants To Bring Back Lost Species: A Mammoth Moonshot (And It’s Just The Beginning) – Features

The team behind Colossal, the firm that wants to bring back the woolly mammoth (Photo by John Davidson)

One small step for Mammuthus primigeniusa giant leap for humanity.

Tell the world your bioscience startup raised $75 million for renowned genomics pioneers to resurrect woolly mammoths, and you’ll likely get a plethora of comparisons for jurassic park. Factor in that some of the investors include former Legendary Entertainment CEO Thomas Tull and Mark Zuckerberg’s early rivals the Winklevoss twins, in addition to fears from some in the company who don’t like to genetically modify anything, and you will also have many questions asking why we should embrace disextinction at all.

However, that’s exactly what Austin-based startup Colossal plans to do, inserting massive genetic information into existing species of African elephants so they share many traits of their distant woolly cousins. such as resistance to cold. The idea is that reintroducing mammoths to their former arctic tundra habitat would have ecological benefits to curb the effects of global warming. The company expects to have a live hybrid mammoth calf within a few years.

But the company’s management doesn’t see it as a marginal scientific ploy to erect prehistoric zoos, nor is Spielberg’s classic film an accurate comparison. Founder Ben Lamm compares the previously improbable and never-before-done task to “the moon landing and the Apollo program”. The path to bring back the mammoth is similar [because] there are no technological or scientific doors to achieve this. He noted that even technology from the 1960s was able to successfully travel to the moon and back, “and there’s a lot of technology that will come out of [this work] who are massively disruptive, like Apollo.

“You see the advancement of synthetic biology and genetic engineering at a phenomenal rate right now.” – Church of St. George

The US mission to land on the moon indeed brought major new innovations, such as GPS, fire-retardant materials, the insulin pump, shock-absorbing sneakers, integrated circuits, and much more. Meanwhile, Colossal’s pursuit to resurrect a mammoth won’t just benefit the field of deextinction, though the technologies could be applied to help save other endangered species. But that’s not all. Some innovations may even be applicable to agriculture and/or human health.

On the software side, Colossal co-founder (and occasional science fiction novelist) Andrew Busey is leading efforts from Austin to develop a more standardized approach to using and sharing genomic data, which is essential to improve collaboration and eliminate the time spent on standardizing this information and modifying genes. Then there’s the wetworks side, which is much cooler and more exciting once you realize the impact it can have one day. For example, the development of the Colossal artificial womb to incubate mammoth hybrids could one day be a game-changer for premature births in human parents.

“Some of the technologies we are developing will help make genetic engineering faster, more efficient and more impactful by treating multiple genes at the same time,” he said. For scale, Lamm co-founder George Church, the prominent geneticist who helped develop CRISPR, started making one genome edit at a time through his lab and now holds the record of 24,000 edits. (multiplex) in a single human cell. “So it’s only within six years. You are seeing the advancement of synthetic biology and genetic engineering at a phenomenal rate right now.

That said, time is probably not the best benchmark for such precise work. And it’s extremely accurate, which is why Colossal hopes its technology will one day help provide comprehensive libraries of genomic data for most species, in the service of genetic engineering.

“Anything is possible, potentially, with the tools available to learn how to accelerate evolution [with other species]said Eriona Hysolli, Head of Biological Sciences. “But I would also like to warn that studies are needed for this to happen. If you want to turn one species into a different species, there is still a lot to do. In other words, Colossal doesn’t do any radical species engineering, so you’ll just have to open a book if you want details on zebras with lizard wings and tails.

Hysolli also thinks that’s why the work done on the mammoth project is more ideal to start with than other animals that are still alive: “It’s just one more way to learn from evolution, by [observing] species that existed before such as the woolly mammoth. While the arctic rewilding of these ancient beasts wasn’t part of a larger long-term mission for the company, she said there’s a lot to be discovered to better understand what’s affecting endangered animals. like elephants.

“I am very passionate about climate change and species preservation. Those are two major themes in what we do,” Lamm said. “But a lot of people just talk about rewilding the Arctic, and we’ve been very transparent: We’re excited about it, but it’s going to take a while.”

The startup’s favorite place to possibly reintroduce mammoths to the wild is Pleistocene Park, a nature reserve in Russian-controlled Siberia. Considering Russia’s recent invasion of the former Soviet territory of Ukraine, taking time might not be such a bad thing. And who knows, maybe one day prominent American genomics researchers might even be among the most effective diplomatic relations with Russia, much as the space program has been in modern times.


Featured session

Colossal Mission: A Case of Disextinction

Friday, March 18, 2:30 p.m., Palais des Congrès

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