“Mammoth”? “Elephantmouth”? “Hibernatus”? No one knows what will be called the first babies that will come out of the incubators of Colossal. This American company announced, Monday, September 13, that it had raised 15 million dollars (i.e. more than 12.6 million euros) not to resuscitate the woolly mammoth but to create a “Cold-resistant elephant with all basic biological traits” of this species which became extinct 4,000 years ago.
Created by George Church, one of the pioneers of genetic sequencing, and entrepreneur Ben Lamm, the Colossal firm aims ” only “ to create a hybrid species: the Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) share an ancestor common and have a DNA similar to 99.6%.
The interest of these neopachyderms? These could help “Restore lost ecosystems” who themselves will contribute ” to stop or even reverse the effects of climate change ”, details the American company. She hopes in this way to revive arctic grasslands, which capture carbon dioxide and eliminate methane, two greenhouse gases.
The magazine National Geographic reports that in 2012 and 2013, George Church met Russian researcher Sergei Zimov. The latter has been developing the idea of a Pleistocene park for several decades. in northern Siberia, where he intends to reconstitute the environment of the great steppes as it existed several thousand years ago. What Zimov fears: The release into the atmosphere of large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide as the permafrost melts in the region.
Pioneer of genetic sequencing
George Church, on the other hand, is anything but an emulator of Doctor Frankenstein – who assembles a living being with parts of dead flesh – or John Parker Hammond, the CEO of InGen, who in the first films of the cinematographic series Jurassic Park brings dinosaurs to life through genetics for the needs of an amusement park.
A professor at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he is one of the pioneers of genetic sequencing, known for inventing ways to read and edit DNA.
“Holder of several dozen patents, creator of numerous start-ups, he co-authored one of the first articles showing the use of Crispr, a revolutionary system for editing genomes, to modify human or plant stem cells”, wrote The world about him, in 2016.
Years of research
In 2013, when of a TedEx conference, Mr. Church evoked the hybridization of extinct species. Research including New York Times had already echoed, five years earlier. Since then, he has led a team using the Crispr DNA method (“genetic scissor”) to seek to insert genes from a woolly mammoth into the genome of an Asian elephant.
In 2016, he explained to the World that his project was to slightly modify these “To give them access to ecosystems, like the Arctic, where they would be less in conflict with humans”. The following year, he announced that he had introduced some pieces of mammoth DNA into Asian elephant cells : a little fur here, some fat there – characteristics always useful to resist the cold.
A year later, accompanied by Eriona Hysolli, one of his former students, he went to Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, in Siberia, to take tissue samples from these extinct pachyderms. This time with the ambition to modify the DNA of elephants.
Find a uterus
There are still some practical details to settle, and not the least, recognizes the person concerned, in the New York Times. In particular that of gestation: which uterus to choose to ensure the genesis of a hybrid weighing a hundred kilos, knowing that in the Asian elephant, it lasts from eighteen to twenty-two months? After considering using surrogate mothers, the Colossal team decided to make an artificial matrix, lined with uterine tissue grown from stem cells.
“Lots of problems will arise during this process”, argues with the New York Times Beth Shapiro, paleogenetician at the University of Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, California, and author of How to Clone a Mammoth (2015, Princeton University Press). As early as 2016, Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, was worried in the columns of the British newspaper The Guardian :
“The mammoth was not just a collection of genes, it was a social animal, like the modern Asian elephant. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be received by the elephants? “
With this project, Colossal positions itself on the still much debated subject of “de-extinction” (re-wilding, in English): the will, or the fantasy, to resuscitate an extinct species. “Our goal is not just to bring back the mammoth. (…) If you take this toolbox [l’édition des génomes, pour modifier des cellules souches], you have all the tools at your disposal to prevent extinction or to safeguard critically endangered species ”, explains Ben Lamm, the other head of the project, to the site TechCrunch.
Colossal’s announcement comes a few days after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the update of its barometer of the state of life on the planet: out of the 138,374 species listed, 38,543, or some 28%, are classified in the various so-called “threatened” categories.
George Church and Ben Lamm’s work is still in its infancy, recalls National Geographic. The first hybrid pachyderms should only be able to roam the tundra in several years … If there are any left by then.