When startups come into existence, they promise the world to investors and customers alike: Facebook promised to connect us with loved ones across the globe, Google promised seemingly infinite knowledge in seconds, and Amazon promised to help us buy everything imaginable (and they delivered, in more ways than one). But how often does a startup come along that promises to save the planet from climate change by bringing back a gigantic mammal from the Ice Age?
Colossal, the newest venture from Hypergiant founder Ben Lamm and Harvard biologist George Church, promises to do that — sort of. According to Lamm, the company plans to create a woolly mammoth hybrid using DNA from the Asian elephant, the first time a new species will be created using DNA from its ancestor. While it may not be identical to the woolly mammoths that walked the Earth thousands of years ago, the new creature represents a major scientific breakthrough years in the making.
As for mitigating the effects of climate change, the hybrid mammoth will be part of an initiative to repopulate the Siberian tundra with an animal by revitalizing arctic grasslands. Scientists say that the arctic has suffered as a result of the mammoth’s extinction over 4,000 years ago.
“Colossal’s functional woolly mammoth will fill the ecological void that was left when the species first went extinct,” Lamm said.
To get the project off the ground, Lamm reached out to Church directly, who had been working on CRISPR gene editing technology for years. The only thing his department was missing was funding. With the added $15 million, Colossal expects the first mammoth calves to be born within four to six years.
Last week, the company announced a $15 million seed round led by Thomas Tull, the former CEO of Legendary Entertainment (ironically enough, the company produced “Jurassic World,” a movie that speculates on the disastrous effects of resurrecting dinosaurs).
Colossal isn’t Lamm’s first foray into combating climate change. One of Hypergiant’s products is a bioreactor that uses algae to mitigate climate change — the refrigerator-sized device captures CO2 using AI to maximize algae growth, and can reduce 60% to 90% of carbon in the air.
In an email exchange with us, Lamm spoke about why he suddenly became fascinated by mammoths, the power of synthetic biology, and what’s next for both Colossal and Hypergiant.
The Business of Business: What made you want to reach out to George Church and found Colossal in the first place?
Ben Lamm: As a technology entrepreneur with a passion for emerging tech, I have been following the powerful impact both CRISPR and George Church has had on genetics for years. I read an incredible article about his vision, to not just bring back the woolly mammoth, which is interesting science, but also about the true intentions of Arctic rewilding, species preservation, and species extension. His mission to bring the woolly mammoth back via de-extinction aligned with my passions on CRISPR, bioengineering, climate change, and species protection. I knew that if I wanted to make this a reality, I needed to reach out to the world-renowned geneticist who has been focused on this project for the last decade.
What are your biggest challenges when it comes to Colossal?
Colossal’s largest scientific hurdle will be the implantation of the woolly mammoth embryo. The woolly mammoth embryo will be either implanted in a surrogate elephant or an artificial womb. Colossal is pursuing a more mindful alternative to elephant surrogacy by means of artificial wombs. Colossal is working to advance current research on later stage development in vitro. We aim to further this development by creating a pumping system for exchange of gas, nutrient and waste metabolites, and umbilical blood supply with the goal of carrying a woolly mammoth embryo to term in vitro.
“We are developing a new frontier of synthetic biology. A living species has never been modified with DNA from its extinct relative.”
Colossal is also addressing the challenge of species conservation and species preservation by bringing awareness and funding to the genetic rescue of endangered species. Colossal is in collaboration with the Vertebrate Genome Project (VGP), where we have funded the sequencing, assembly, and annotation of the Asian, African, and Forest Elephant. The VGP is aiming to sequence all 70,000 vertebrates to address fundamental questions in biology and disease, identify species most genetically at risk of extinction, and to preserve the genetic information of life. There is not enough focus on these efforts, and it is critical that we act with urgency as we aim to genetically preserve and protect endangered species, before we lose them forever.
When can we expect to see a real live woolly mammoth? How different will it be from the kind that roamed the Earth thousands of years ago?
We aim for our first calves to come within 4-6 years. Colossal is creating a woolly mammoth hybrid. We are developing a new frontier of synthetic biology. A living species has never been modified with DNA from its extinct relative.
We are inserting 60 genes that are unique to the woolly mammoth into the genome of an Asian elephant. By inserting these genes, we aim to generate direct phenotypic changes such as increased adipose tissue (body fat), long hair and sebaceous gland development, domed cranium, shorter ears and tail, as well as cold-adapted hemoglobin which allows for a more efficient O2 transfer in the cold. Colossal’s functional woolly mammoth will fill the ecological void that was left when the species first went extinct.
Is one of your main goals with Colossal to slow the effects of climate change? How can synthetic biology help with this, especially in terms of woolly mammoths being reintroduced?
Yes, one of Colossal’s main goals is to slow the effects of climate change on the Arctic tundra with the reintroduction of the woolly mammoth. With synthetic biology, our teams can expedite adaptation of elephants to a cooler climate, away from the dangers of urbanization and back into their ancestral Arctic domain, by equipping them with cold-tolerant genes acquired by their extinct relatives.
Colossal is in collaboration with Arctic rewilding scientists, Sergey and Nikita Zimov of Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia. They have completed extensive climate modeling on the effects rewilding megafauna has on the Arctic and tundra ecosystems. The woolly mammoths once roamed the Arctic tundra with a density of one mammoth per square kilometer. Colossal aims to restore this keystone species so that we can benefit from their natural climate-combating geo-engineering capabilities.
What are the potential negative effects of introducing a new species into a habitat?
A potential negative effect of introducing a new species into a habitat is that the species takes on invasive attributes, however, we are not bringing back a species that would be invasive to its intended habitat. Instead, Colossal is bringing back the woolly mammoth as a means to enrich an ecosystem that has been, and continues to be, steadily degrading without its presence. The extinction of the woolly mammoth created an ecological void in the Arctic landscape that has never been filled by another species. The woolly mammoth’s disappearance has resulted in continuous decay of the tundra ecosystem. Colossal aims to fill the ecological void by restoring the woolly mammoth to the Arctic tundra once more.
Once you’ve mastered de-extinction, what are the other applications for this technology aside from creating mammoths?
To aid in the restoration of the woolly mammoth, Colossal is working on the automation of base editing technology. Colossal’s teams are working to harness our understanding of genetics to develop a software that can automate precise base editing, multiplex editing, and CRISPR editing technologies.
“I knew that if I wanted to make this a reality, I needed to reach out to the world-renowned geneticist who has been focused on this project for the last decade.”
Colossal’s goals include the preservation and restoration of species through thoughtful disruptive conservation techniques like species extension. We are using cutting edge technologies to restore biodiversity and create a pipeline for species conservation. Colossal is also working on identifying endangered species that can be given a new set of tools from their extinct relatives to survive in new ecosystems that desperately need them.
What does the next year look like for Colossal? What’s the game plan in terms of company growth and development of the technology?
For the next 2.5 years, Colossal’s teams will continue the work that has already begun in the Church lab, such as using precise base editing technology to edit the woolly mammoth genes into the Asian elephant genome. In parallel to this, Colossal’s scientists are deriving elephant iPSCs [induced pluripotent stem cells] from donated elephant tissue. These iPSCs will be used to verify and characterize our edits into the genome through expression in different tissue types as well as artificial womb development.
Aside from Colossal, how closely are you still working with Hypergiant? Are there any new projects on that front you’re excited about?
I continue to be one of the largest shareholders and on the board of Hypergiant. I actively support Hypergiant in every way that I can. Hypergiant is rolling out the Hyperdrive AI platform, which will help democratize AI. I am very excited about the prospects of this platform, as they will create opportunities for companies and institutions to leverage AI for good.