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  • Writer's pictureEmma Kay Bleakley

To de-extinct or not to de-extinct – now that is a Colossal question!

Imagine a frozen tundra that covers most of the northern hemisphere. All around, for miles and miles, the only thing to see are hardy grasses, small shrubs, and tough little plants, and then, in the distance, a herd of large, shaggy, woolly mammoths, quietly going about their day, foraging the plants. What if scenes like this weren’t limited to our imaginations? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to walk alongside woolly mammoths? Would you like to go on a tundra safari and see a family of woolly mammoths stride majestically through the landscape? Jurassic Park made real, excluding the rampaging T-Rex and murderous Velociraptors, of course.

According to some scientists, this isn’t out of the realms of possibility. In fact, de-extinction has already been achieved, albeit only fleetingly. In 2003, Jose Folch and his team of scientists from the Center for Agro-Nutrition Research and Technology in Aragon, Spain, successfully cloned a Pyrenean Ibex, a species declared extinct in 2000. Cloning is a process that involves copying an animal’s genetic material from its cells to produce an exact replica of the original. Tragically, the cloned calf died within minutes of being born, due to a lung defect and it was unable to breath. The Center for Agro-Nutrition Research and Technology and other companies have not been discouraged from trying again because of this loss, which begs the question: Is anyone considering the welfare of the animals they are creating?

One of the most prominent companies within this field is Colossal. Founded in Texas, USA, by entrepreneur Ben Lamm and geneticist, Professor George Church, Colossal was launched in 2021, stating that they would be able to “bring back the woolly mammoth” within 10 years.

Colossal believe reintroducing species that existed on Earth before modern man industrialised and became the primary driver of climate change, can return the Earth to a healthier state and, eventually, halt the sixth mass extinction and restore lost ecosystems along with lost species. The five previous mass extinction events that the Earth has experienced were entirely brought about by natural occurrences on our planet. The human race is the single most significant cause of the current sixth mass extinction. This isn’t science fiction, it’s science fact! In order to prevent the sixth mass extinction event from being catastrophic, some believe that de-extinction can stop and even reverse the damage done to our fragile ecosystems.

According to Colossal, reintroducing woolly mammoths will safeguard the permafrost in the Arctic and revitalise the tundra and grasslands of the Mammoth Steppe, which served as a massive carbon sink for the carbon that causes climate change. The woolly mammoth is believed to do this by migrating vast distances over the Arctic tundra of the Mammoth Steppe to forage on the grasses and small shrubs. The natural grassland and tundra vegetation flourishes when it is exposed to the sun and air as a result of the scraping away of the snow and ice during their foraging.

This all sounds like a good plan, until the quite literal “elephant in the room” is brought up, welfare. Only once within Colossal’s very tech orientated website is the word welfare used.

“Genetic engineering applications of animals include advancing human health, enhancing food production, reducing environmental impact, optimizing animal health and welfare and production of cutting-edge industrial applications.”

Colossal state in the Science and Technology section of their website that they are developing software, hardware, and wetware (technology that combines biology with AI and computers), technologies that they believe will resolve current life changing problems that all life on the Earth are facing. With the aid of genetic engineering, Colossal believes that they will be able to replace the nucleus within an Asian Elephant egg cell, with that of a woolly mammoth, using DNA from conserved samples of hair, tusks, and bones.

The egg cell is then exposed to electrical pulses to stimulate fertilisation. The egg cell then starts to divide and develop into an embryo, which would then be implanted into a surrogate mother, an Asian elephant, to be carried until birth.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, but what we have seen is that this technology is possible, but with only limited success. The Pyrenean Ibex calf that was born in 2003 lived for only seven minutes. This was due to an extra lobe on her left lung, that meant that the chest was too small, and the calf’s lungs were unable to function properly, and she died. But this isn’t the whole story of how the Pyrenean Ibex was de-extinct. Behind the scenes, there is an entirely other story involving two experiments, 541 animals, from embryo to adult goats involved in just that one birth. Nearly 500 cloned embryos were produced, of which 154 were implanted into their host mothers, a mix of pure Spanish ibex, and Spanish ibex and domestic goat hybrids. Out of the 44 mothers, only one goat carried her calf to full-term, and that calf was delivered by caesarean section. This means, 153 embryos or foetuses were naturally aborted at some point during their gestation! Jose Folch and his team concluded that “cloning is a not very effective way to preserve endangered species…”.

This highlights the issue of the welfare of the animals used in these de-extinction experiments. Although Colossal mentions animal welfare on their website, it is only once in a paragraph promoting the development of genetic engineering and optimising animal health and welfare of animals already within our ecosystems. Colossal do not tackle the issue of the welfare of the animals used to get to this hypothetical future were extinct animals and ecosystems are flourishing.

Dr Heather Browning of the University of Southampton is one person who has spent a significant amount of time thinking about and researching the question of de-extinction and animal welfare. Whilst doing her Phd, Dr Browning read a book by Beth Shapiro, who is the Lead Paleogeneticist with Colossal and a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz. Professor Shapiro’s book, “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction” got Dr Browning thinking about the “complete absence of animal welfare discussion” within the whole of the book. This echoes the absence of any consideration of animal welfare on Colossal’s website, which prompted Dr Browning to look further into de-extinction studies. She discovered that none of these studies genuinely address animal welfare, from the animals used in the experiments, to the animals resulting from them. No-one discusses how these laboratory animals are kept, before, during and after their time in the labs; whether their emotional and physical needs are considered whilst they are there, other than to keep them alive.

Colossal describe on their website that the de-extinct woolly mammoth would be a hybrid using the Asian Elephant, that will be cold resistant, walk and sound like a woolly mammoth, “but most importantly it will be able to inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the mammoth’s extinction”. Unfortunately, the Mammoth Steppe, the tundra that the woolly mammoths roamed, is also extinct, replaced by forests and wetlands, begging the question, if Colossal achieve their goal of de-extincting the woolly mammoth, where will it live? Colossal’s idea is that the woolly mammoths will revive the frozen tundras, but what will they survive on before this key factor is a reality? We don’t really know what the diet of a woolly mammoth looked like. What sort of nutrients they required, to survive and thrive. Even when we do know what the diets and other requirements, such as shelter and social structure are in other species, there is high chance to get things wrong, and as Dr Browning states, “Releasing animals that we know quite a lot about is still successful a relatively small percentage of the time”. What will happen to Colossal’s woolly mammoths in the interim until such time as an area of Arctic tundra is re-established, if this is even possible without billions of pounds worth of human effort and years of time?

Will Colossal produce offspring that are genetically viable? It’s challenging to achieve sufficient genetic variation to “produce a self-sustaining wild population,” as Dr Browning stated, and at what cost, both in money, but also in the welfare of the animals involved. To produce enough genetic variation, there would need to be several Asian Elephant host mothers, and a suitably genetically variable herd of offspring. They say that to raise a child it takes a village, but to de-extinct a woolly mammoth it would take a city of scientists, a herd of host elephant mothers and their de-extinct offspring. Where and how would all these animals be kept? How would the scientists deal with the elephant mothers who didn’t carry their offspring to term? Dr Ritesh Joshi of the Doon Institute of Engineering and Technology, India, studied and witnessed wild Asian Elephants mourning the loss of members of the herd, with low mournful sounds and guarding the body for many hours, and concluded “that mourning behaviour is very common in Asian elephants”. As seen with the Pyrenean Ibex, the losses during the de-extinction process are, quite simply, colossal.

One very important aspect of animal welfare is consideration and adherence to their unique social structures. The social structure of a woolly mammoth herd is unknown. As Dr Browning said, “… you look at two animals that are really closely related, like the chimps and the bonobos, and they have extraordinarily different social structures”. Simply assuming that the social structure of a woolly mammoth herd is the same as an Asian elephant herd could have devastating consequences.

How much thought have Colossal put into the aftercare of any woolly mammoths they are able to de-extinct? Their website simply states the woolly mammoths would be released into the newly rewilded tundras of the Mammoth Steppe. This paints a very pretty and impressive picture, but as we can see from other scientists, it is not as simple as that. The welfare of all the animals involved before, during and after de-extinction is a huge consideration to make this project viable and humane.

Going forward Colossal may possibly concentrate on its programme of restoration, rewilding, and reintroduction of species before they become extinct. Using their knowledge of genetic engineering, they could clearly and effectively contribute to species recovery. Colossal talk on their website about “preservation through genetics” of species such as the Florida panther, the black-footed ferret, and the American bison, all of which have been brought back from the brink of extinction, using advancements in genetic engineering. What Colossal don’t say, is that these projects were achieved by other companies. What could Colossal achieve with their funding and knowledge? Instead of spending millions trying to re-set our planet back to a pre-industrial environment, Colossal could use their knowledge and vision to help fragile species and ecosystems facing extinction now.

Seeing and walking with woolly mammoths would be a dream come true for many people, both scientists and non-scientists alike, but like many dreams, it is just a dream. Colossal have lofty goals, but it’s their practical suggestions and experience that could really benefit the planet; otherwise, while they work to bring back woolly mammoths, Asian elephants may also become extinct. The welfare of current living species is the foremost concern and Colossal has the potential to have a colossal impact.

Colossal were approached to share their opinions on animal welfare prior to, during and after the de-extinction process, and to respond to the questions posed, but were unavailable for interview.

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