DNA will help scientists revive a woolly giant

(ORDO NEWS) — In the fall of 2021, investor Ben Lamm and geneticist George Church announced the creation of a startup called Colossal with a starting capital of $15 million.

The initial goal of the project is to recreate a mammoth and send it to populate Yakutia. The beast must turn the tundra into a cool savannah and perhaps even save the planet from overheating.

The last mammoths lived not too long ago – at that time the pyramids were already erected in ancient Egypt. In addition, their remains were trapped in ice and permafrost, so finding perfectly preserved specimens is not so difficult. Some even manage to isolate DNA.

“People used to think that mammoths are gone forever. But scientists working in our company’s laboratory don’t think so. We are already engaged in the revival of the woolly mammoth.

The team has collected viable DNA samples and is editing the genes that will allow this remarkable giant to once again become the glory of the Arctic,” this optimistic ad greets visitors on the Colossal startup website.

With Ben Lamm, “everything is clear”: one of the tasks of his last Hypergiant Industries project was to unravel the mystery of UFOs. The company was developing a neural network capable of finding “dishes” on satellite images and studying their trajectories.

But Church, who said that he would show the first baby mammoth in five or six years, was not seen in anything like that. This is one of the most famous geneticists in the world, and the list of his achievements looks almost as fantastic as the resurrection of ancient animals.

Together with Walter Gilbert, he created the first direct sequencing method and became one of the initiators of the Human Genome Project. His technology made it possible for the first time to establish the complete DNA sequence of a bacterium.

Church participated in the development of CRISPR / Cas9 gene modification technologies and nanopore sequencing, demonstrated the use of DNA as a data storage device and even a dark matter detector. If such a person started something new, it is no accident.

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Saving the Endangered

Another extremely unusual character, Stuart Brand, persuaded Church to revive the extinct species. This is a well-known environmentalist who became one of the founders of the green movement in the 1960s. However, his views are not like ordinary dreams of a world not spoiled by technology.

In solving environmental problems, Brand calls to rely on the most advanced technologies: nuclear energy, geoengineering, genome editing, biotechnology. His approach, eco-pragmatism, he opposes to conventional environmentalism, which causes a lot of criticism.

One day, Brand asked Church if a promising new genome-editing technology, CRISPR, could turn an elephant into a mammoth. The scientist was interested in the idea, and cooperation began.

In 2021, they founded the non-profit organization Revive & Restore (“Revival and Restoration”), which tried to start projects to save endangered species suffering from low genetic diversity by introducing genes from extinct brethren into their DNA.

For example, Revive & Restore isolated DNA from the remains of extinct black-footed ferrets to bring genetic diversity back into living populations of their relatives.

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Brand calls it a “genetic emergency,” although the American public has a hard time accepting such ideas. In other countries, the attitude towards saving the dying is more benevolent.

In 2003, in Europe, they already tried to resurrect the Pyrenean ibex, the last of which had died a few years before. The experiment ended in failure: due to underdeveloped lungs, the cub did not last long, and the Pyrenean ibex became the first twice-extinct animal in history.

However, scientists are thinking about new attempts to revive extinct species: in Australia – a caring frog, in the UK – a great auk, in South Africa – a quagga. So far, even with a frog, nothing has happened. Really now swung immediately at the mammoth?

George Church:
“It is not so important for us to accurately recreate the mammoth: it is enough to get someone who looks like him – a woolly elephant, if you want. The main thing is that it will perform the same functions in the ecosystem.”

Fossil Revival

The first successful demonstration of cloning dates back to 1996, when the famous Dolly the Sheep was born. If you go this way, you will need to take a mammoth cell with perfectly preserved chromosomes and the entire cell nucleus.

Next, the nucleus should be extracted and, together with the genome, transferred to the egg cell of the elephant, whose own nucleus was previously removed. And the embryo prepared in this way is transplanted to a surrogate female, in whose womb it will grow, following the genetic program from the original cell.

Ever since the advent of cryopreservation technology in the 1990s, many field expeditions have been trying to find suitable mammoth cells and immediately freeze them in preparation for cloning.

In both Siberia and Canada, very promising animal remains are often found in the permafrost, but each time the DNA in the cells turns out to be too badly damaged by time, heat and bacteria. Scientists still do not have mammoth cells suitable for cloning.

So Church found another way to resurrect the shaggy giants of old. The scientist decided to edit the elephant’s genome, adding to it some fragments of mammoth DNA – primarily those that are needed for wool growth.

Woolly mammoths were very cold-resistant herbivores. Not only thick fur helped to escape the frost, but also large body sizes, noticeably reduced in comparison with elephant ears, and continuous, albeit unhurried, physical activity.

HEIGHT: 3-3.5 m at the withers

WEIGHT: up to 6 t

LIFE LIFE: 70 years

TUSKS: 5 m

HABITAT: Pleistocene tundra-steppe

NUTRITION: shoots, leaves and fruits of plants

The complete mammoth genome was assembled from fragments and read back in 2015; it almost entirely coincides with the elephant genome.

Some genes have been found that are responsible for the abilities associated with life in the Arctic, for example, for a special form of hemoglobin that better binds and releases oxygen at low temperatures. Ordinary elephants, of course, do not have such a gene; in total, 50 fragments of their genome require replacement.

According to Church’s idea, they will give the recreated beast thick hair, cold-resistant hemoglobin and additional fat deposits. True, the tusks are planned to be removed in order to protect the amazing animals from poachers.

So, geneticists are going to synthesize the necessary DNA sections using samples from the mammoth genome. Then, using CRISPR technology (which Church also had a hand in creating), these fragments were introduced into the genome of an elephant cell, placing it in the uterus of a surrogate female.

It remains to wait from 18 to 22 months of pregnancy, and the first “resurrected” mammoth will be born. More precisely, a baby elephant turned into a modern analogue of a mammoth.

Place of registration

At the suggestion of the same Stuart Brand, Church is going to place the baby in the Pleistocene Park nature reserve, located in Yakutia, beyond the Arctic Circle, in places where the Kolyma flows into the East Siberian Sea.

Here, at the North-Eastern Scientific Station of the Russian Academy of Sciences, an unusual experiment has been carried out for more than 30 years to recreate the disappeared ecosystem of the “mammoth steppes”. And the main role in this transformation should be played by large animals brought to the tundra.

Today, the Far North is tundra and low woodlands. However, even 12 thousand years ago, most of the territory was covered by glaciers, and in other places the tundra-steppe spread.

It resembled a very cold savannah, where numerous herds of animals grazed, which continuously trampled and fertilized the soil. It is this landscape that ecologist Sergei Zimov plans to recreate.

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Having begun work on it back in the late 1980s, Zimov over the years has shown that large herbivores are able to turn the tundra into rich pastures again.

Animals eat grass and trample snow, loosen the soil, leaving the roots intact, help in the distribution of seeds, stimulate plant growth and the development of the entire ecosystem.

Many hardy herbivores have already settled in the reserve: Yakut horses and reindeer, sheep and musk oxen, elks and yaks, bison and bison, even goats with camels. The only thing missing is mammoths.

Permafrost conservation

According to Sergei Zimov, by removing, manuring and trampling snow, grazing animals violate the thermal insulation of the soil. This allows it to freeze deeper during the cold season and slows down the thawing of permafrost, the destruction of which has noticeably accelerated in recent years.

But the entire infrastructure in the Far North relies on this – not so eternal, as it turned out – layer. In addition, permafrost retains huge amounts of organic matter: if all of it goes into the soil and begins to be processed by bacteria, this will lead to the release of colossal additional volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Greenhouse methane is also released from melting permafrost. It is planned to stop this process with the help of large herbivores.

In 2018, Church and Brand visited an environmentalist in the Pleistocene Park and easily got along with him. “It would be easier with mammoths, although we can manage without them ,” says Zimov. – Even if they can be revived, it will be a problem for our children and grandchildren, because the elephant grows for a long time.

My task is to start, to convince that it is worth trying. This is our land, our food, and the elephants should be ours too.” However, Church talks about his main goal differently.

“What result will be success for me? The return of the interaction between species, which disappeared with the loss of one of them, the scientist explains. -If we do this, we will increase the planet’s genetic diversity and restore lost ecosystems.

Therefore, it is not so important for us to accurately recreate the mammoth: it is enough to get someone who looks like him – a woolly elephant, if you want. The main thing is that it will perform the same functions in the ecosystem.”

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