The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These scientists want to bring back the woolly mammoth. Ethicists aren’t so sure.

A person walks past giant bronze sculptures of mammoths during the World Biathlon Championships in 2011, in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

When ethicist Karen Wendling of Canada’s University of Guelph first heard about a new company’s plan to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth, she was enthralled by the possibilities it created.

If a behemoth similar to the one that roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago could be engineered, could a dodo bird and other long-gone species, as well?

“Who doesn’t think it’d be cool in principle,” she said. “It also sounds a lot like ‘Jurassic Park.’ ”

A start-up, Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences, made headlines earlier this week when the company announced an ambitious plan to create a “cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the woolly mammoth.” The scientists behind the initiative say their work could help reverse the effects of climate change and advance genetic engineering.

But their idea has also generated a fierce ethical debate, not unlike the one that played out on movie screens years ago: Is this another case where scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should?

“I’m quite leery of a technological fix for the problems we’ve created,” Wendling said.

Colossal, which has received at least $15 million from investors, has set out to edit the Asian elephant’s DNA, inserting traits from the woolly mammoth. Then, using the same process that created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, scientists aim to create a hybrid woolly mammoth-Asian elephant embryo.

A surrogate African elephant would carry the embryo for a gestation period of nearly two years. The company is also working on the possibility of creating artificial wombs.

Colossal aims to have something similar to a woolly mammoth calf within the next six years. Company leadership acknowledges that the timeline is ambitious.

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Ben Lamm, CEO of Colossal, told The Washington Post in an email that the extinction of the woolly mammoth left an ecological void in the Arctic tundra that Colossal aims to fill. The eventual goal is to return the species to the region so that they can reestablish grasslands and protect the permafrost, keeping it from releasing greenhouse gases at such a high rate.

“We believe our work will restore this degraded ecosystem to a richer one, similar to the tundra that existed as recently as 10,000 years ago,” he said.

Scientists expected thawing wetlands in Siberia’s permafrost. What they found is ‘much more dangerous.’

Colossal’s board is made up in part of biologists and bioethicists, and renowned geneticist George Church is at the front of the company’s mammoth push. The project also hopes to “de-extinct” other species and create an inventory of genetic material from endangered species.

Church said in an email that Colossal is most interested in preventing the loss of endangered species like the Asian elephant through genetic variation.

He also said this “Arctic elephant” was chosen for the project partly because it is easy to track, adding that the Asian elephant is “arguably the most charismatic endangered species.”

Christopher Preston, a professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at the University of Montana, questioned Colossal’s focus on climate change, given that it would take decades to raise a herd of woolly mammoths large enough to have environmental impacts and there are tried-and-true conservation tactics that need funding.

“We should be making sure those get enough resources, rather than getting taking our eye off the ball by the distraction of a project such as de-extinction,” he said. “It's very hard for me to think that the idea you could de-extinct a woolly mammoth is a technological fix for anything that needs fixing in the next century.”

But Beth Shapiro, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, professor at University of California at Santa Cruz and author of “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction,” said as flashy as the idea of bringing back a mammoth is, this endeavor is exciting because it doesn’t stop there.

Shapiro said the investments made in this project could create technologies to help living species adapt to climate change by editing their genes to include more resilient traits. This is critical because animals can no longer evolve as quickly as their habitats do. She said the thought of bringing the mammoth back to stomp across the Earth has also drawn in massive donors who likely would not have thrown their money toward more traditional methods.

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Though Wendling was also initially excited by the idea, later she thought about groups of woolly mammoths wandering through Russia, Alaska and Canada and wondered what the tundra’s Indigenous people would think of the effort.

The tundra wasn’t nearly as populated with humans when woolly mammoths roamed the earth, she noted, and it’s difficult to predict what actual effects reintroducing them would have on the environment.

Lamm said no Indigenous populations will be affected by Colossal’s initial reintroduction plans, which will begin in Pleistocene Park, a nature reserve in Siberia. He said while the company is several years off from beginning the “rewilding” process, “we are already starting conversations with several indigenous leaders in various northern regions.”

Paul Thompson, W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, said while research like this could help move the science forward and ignite the imaginations of those watching it unfold, it also seems frivolous.

He said there should be a high ethical bar when considering gene modification, and pointed to the controversy over the modification of plants, which prompted calls to label all foods containing genetically modified organisms or GMOs. He questioned whether creating a new species of “quasi-mammoths” is in the interest of the animals that would be created.

Thompson said biologists are still trying to uncover what makes some species invasive and others helpful to a new ecosystem, and said there’s a conversation to be had about whether introducing a woolly mammoth equates to introducing an invasive species.

Shapiro said while there will be no shortage of ethical and technical challenges facing Colossal’s project, she’s thrilled by the amount of interest in it and what that could mean for conservation more broadly.

“We’re not going to start making any progress until we stop wringing our hands, about the potential risks and really concentrate on the potential rewards,” she said.

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