Something interesting is brewing in Dallas, Texas. Colossal Biosciences is working tirelessly to resurrect not one but three extinct animals: the woolly mammoth, the dodo, and the Tasmanian tiger.
The company intends to use the advances in genetic technology, particularly CRISPR, to bring back these long-gone beasts. They want to populate the Siberian tundra with their mammoths, and reintroduce the dodo to Mauritius and the Tasmanian tiger to Tasmania. In a process that it calls re-wilding, Colossal hopes that reintroducing these animals to their former ecosystems will help restore the ecological balance that was upended by human activity.
Why bring these long-gone critters back? The answer, according to Colossal CEO Ben Lamm, is simple. Talking to online news platform Dallas Innovates about the dodo revival project, he said, “The dodo is the symbol of man-caused extinction. It’s only fitting that Colossal works to reverse that.”
For its grand plans, Colossal has become the talk of the town and has the scientific and financial worlds sitting up and taking notice. Only one year after it was founded, the World Economic Forum named it one of the Technology Pioneers of 2022. However, the company’s de-extinction project has also raised controversy.
Jurassic Park Versus Real Life
Like any disruptive innovation, Colossal Biosciences’ great leap forward has its skeptics. For critics, the issue isn’t whether these animals could be brought back; it’s whether they should be brought back at all. This is a question the scientists in Jurassic Park should have asked themselves before their fictional experiment went horribly wrong.
But Colossal Biosciences is no InGen, the imaginary company at the heart of the Jurassic blockbusters. Colossal has stayed away from make-believe by asking itself exactly that: Should extinct animals be brought back? The answer is a resounding yes.
Extinction Increasing at an Alarming Rate
The statistics about extinction are damning. Multiple studies warn that half of all species could become extinct by 2050. Extinction is increasing at an alarming rate, which is a clear indicator of some external influence. This external influence has the mark of humans all over it. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that human activity hastened the rate of extinction in 2021 by as much as 10,000 times.
This is unsurprising because recent years have seen an unprecedented release of carbon into the atmosphere, while overfishing and hunting have destroyed ecosystems. The great strides in human development have come at a grave cost. For Colossal, the pursuit of de-extinction, then, is an open-and-shut case.
The company intends to use the research gathered from its de-extinction projects to develop a de-extinction database of animals, which shall also house the genetic DNA and embryos of endangered animals. Colossal hopes this will slow down the death march of extinction and give endangered species a fighting chance.
Colossal Biosciences’ Ultimate Aim: Reducing Damage
Colossal’s ultimate aim is to reduce the damage to Earth’s ecosystems by reintroducing critical animals and plants needed to sustain them. For instance, the reintroduction of the woolly mammoth to the Siberian tundra would help trap carbon as the behemoth will knock down low-oxygen trees and recreate ancient grasslands with superior carbon-trapping abilities. This will act as an immediate solution to a long-term problem and will see mammoths restore the role of the tundra as a shield against climate change.
Regardless of the perceived benefit of Colossal’s endeavors, ethical questions surrounding their research can’t be brushed under the rug — and Colossal is facing them head-on. Genetic engineering and biomedical research have generally invited a lot of scrutiny and the emerging ethical, moral, and legal issues have been investigated in depth, forming the corpus of bioethics. From how research should be conducted to the impact on public health, bioethics is a well-developed field of inquiry.
Colossal is committed to a responsible approach to science, implementing end-to-end biosafety and biosecurity measures, integrated monitoring and mitigation tools, and fairly distributed the risks and benefits of their research.
“We’ve worked carefully and diligently on assembling an advisory board of geneticists, bioethicists, scientists, and conservationists to foster an ongoing dialogue with industry experts as well as the broader public at large,” said Lamm.
Lamm’s attitude of caution and due diligence is shared by Colossal’s co-founder and lead geneticist, George Church. Church believes that genetic engineering should be carried out under government oversight. He’s conscious of unintended consequences and therefore careful about what Colossal creates.
“A lot of the technology we develop, we try to make them reversible, containable,” Church told CBS News.
Colossal is being advised by Alta Charo, J.D., and S. Matthew Liao on ethical matters. They are both a part of Colossal’s scientific advisory board. “Expertise is in Colossal’s DNA,” the company states.
“Changing the world starts with assembling the right team. At Colossal, our core consists of highly published and well-respected, industry-leading scientists. It takes radical thinking to go against the grain and effect change. Our team pushes outside the boundaries of what is known to explore the possibilities of possibility.”
By bringing experienced individuals on board, Colossal has mitigated risks associated with genetic engineering. While it may not be humanly possible to foresee everything that may go wrong, due diligence can surely prevent unwanted surprises.
Charo is the Knowles Professor Emerita of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin. She’s been teaching biotechnology policy, bioethics, and public health law for over three decades. Frequently sought out for her expertise in biotech policy issues, Charo served on President Bill Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the congressional office of technology assessment. She also lends her expertise to the World Health Organization as part of its expert advisory committee on global governance of genome editing.
S. Matthew Liao is the Arthur Zitrin chair of bioethics and the director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University. He has authored Current Controversies in Bioethics and over 60 articles on bioethics and philosophy.
“We have a duty to heal our planet and to sustain it for future generations. With creativity, caution, and consultation, ethical use of modern genetic technologies can help stabilize ecosystems while bringing the animals and plants who share our planet back from the brink of extinction,” said Charo.