“The World Wildlife Fund found that in the last 50 years, Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% at the hands of mankind."
That stark statistic from Ben Lamm, the chief executive of Colossal Biosciences, is the reason why the company was founded back in 2021. And it's the backdrop against the company's seemingly magical work of genetic resurrection.
“By gathering the smartest minds across investing, genomics, conservation and synthetic biology, we have the opportunity to reverse human-inflicted biodiversity loss while developing technologies for both conservation and human healthcare," Lamm said in a statement yesterday.
The company announced it had raised another $150 million in funding from a motley assortment of investors including the CIA's venture capital fund, a cryptocurrency gaming company, and a globe-trotting explorer and private equity investor, Victor Vescovo, and the United States Innovative Technology Fund. (a $5 billion deep-technology fund launched by the Pittsburgh-based billionaire Thomas Tull).
Colossal made a splash when it launched less than two years ago with its initial plans to bring back the Wooly Mammoth.
For some environmentalists, and Colossal's co-founder, George Church, the quest to restore extinct species is about. climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Back in 2021 Church, one of Harvard University's most lauded (and wackiest) geneticists argued that reviving woolly mammoths could help keep the rapidly warming Siberian tundra from releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide.
“Mammoths are hypothetically a solution to this,” Dr. Church said at the time.
That's because researchers argued that woolly mammoths were ecosystem engineers, maintaining the grasslands by breaking up moss, knocking down trees and providing fertilizer with their droppings.
The Wooly Mammoth team now boasts 40 researchers and staff who have already sequenced two reference genomes for the mammoth; artificially created stem cells for in-vitro fertilization; identified some mammoth-specific genes, and built an embryology lab for endangered species work for existing elephants.
“Methods for reading and writing DNA are helping make Earth a healthier place to live, medically and environmentally,” noted George Church, a world-renowned geneticist and co-founder of Colossal.
“Genetic technologies are already protecting us and our food sources from infectious and inherited diseases. A society embracing endangered and extinct gene variants is one poised to address many practical obstacles and opportunities in carbon sequestration, nutrition, and new materials,” Church said.
For its next headline-grabbing trick, Colossal will tackle the resurrection of the world's most famous extinct avian ancestor -- the humble, flightless, Dodo bird.
Bringing back the Dodo will be the first task for Colossal's new Avian Genomics group, and is part of the reason why the company was able to nab a $1 billion valuation for its work.
The Dodo was wiped out as a direct result of human settlement and ecosystem competition back in 1662, the company said... and now it's time to bring it back.
It'll be a first test to see whether Colossal's technology can save some of the other more than 3 billion birds that have died over the last 50 years.
The IUCN Red List also now categorizes more than 400 bird species as either extinct, extinct in the wild, or critically endangered.
“The Dodo is a prime example of a species that became extinct because we – people – made it impossible for them to survive in their native habitat," said Beth Shapiro Ph.D., Colossal Scientific Advisory Board member and lead paleogeneticist, in a statement. "Having focused on genetic advancements in ancient DNA for my entire career and as the first to fully sequence the Dodo’s genome, I am thrilled to collaborate with Colossal and the people of Mauritius on the de-extinction and eventual re-wilding of the Dodo. I particularly look forward to furthering genetic rescue tools focused on birds and avian conservation.”
Investors are angling that Colossal will be able to do more than just resurrect extinct species. They're banking on the company's research yielding a wealth of biological innovations based on new gene editing technologies.
In fact, Colossal has already spawned one new company, Form Bio , which has a platform for monitoring, managing, and organizing scientific research.
Other innovations could be licensed and applied to biodiversity restoration, gene therapy, vaccine development, and new biofuel manufacturing technologies.
“Dr. George Church and Colossal’s deep work in genomics is creating some of the most cutting-edge advancements in biotech,” said USIT Chairman Thomas Tull, in a statement. “Their innovative technology has important applications for scientific discoveries, including biomedicine, and we look forward to supporting this crucial work.”
Beyond the Dodo and the mammoth, Colossal also has another team trying to restore the Tasmanian tiger, it's another ambitious project that's achieved some groundbreaking firsts -- including the development of early-stage marsupial embryo development outside of a womb and the first steps at editing an existing animal's genetic makeup to create a creature that resembles the Tasmanian tiger.
Ultimately, Colossal isn't restoring the exact genetic lines of these extinct animals. Rather the company hopes to mutate existing animals genomes to create an animal that closely resembles the extinct antecedent.
“The Colossal teams in the United States and Australia are making incredible progress to de-extinct the Thylacine,” said Andrew Pask Ph.D., Colossal Scientific Advisory Board member and Thylacine lead. “The work is massively accelerated and currently ahead of our internal schedules. The work we are doing to bring back the Thylacine will not only be a huge step in restoring a key species, but it will be instrumental in the next generation of marsupial conservation efforts.”