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Don’t Count On Woolly Mammoths To Save The Planet

Tina Bachmann poses in front of mammoth figures during a photocall of the German Biathlon Woman Team at the Archeopark on March 10, 2011 in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The Archeopark contains mammoth sculptures made of bronze. (Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Tina Bachmann poses in front of mammoth figures during a photocall of the German Biathlon Woman Team at the Archeopark on March 10, 2011 in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The Archeopark contains mammoth sculptures made of bronze. (Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

“What we need to fight climate change is woolly mammoths” — said no climate scientist, ever.

But that’s not deterring a hotshot bioscience start-up from peddling its genetic tinkering as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On its slick website, newly-formed Colossal Laboratories prominently states that its top core goal is “to decelerate melting of the arctic permafrost.” Melting permafrost releases immense quantities of methane into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

To achieve their stated goal, the founders plan to genetically engineer a hybrid of the Asian elephant and the extinct woolly mammoth, which last lived about 4,000 years ago. If you don’t immediately see how that relates to the climate crisis, hang on.

The pitch goes like this. First, the gene-splicing wizards will synthesize some carefully chosen woolly mammoth genes — the animal's complete genetic sequence has been known since 2015 — and implant them in an egg cell from an Asian elephant. Egg harvesting is hugely complex with elephants, and the Asian elephant is endangered. (Colossal’s fallback strategy is to make an embryo from stem cells.)

'What we need to fight climate change is woolly mammoths' — said no climate scientist, ever.

Next, they’ll fertilize the egg and implant the modified embryo in an artificial womb. Actually, there’s one step before that: inventing an artificial womb that can gestate a 200-pound fetus for almost two years. Some preliminary experimental work with mice has been conducted, but that research utilized an embryo taken from a healthy mother mouse.

Once the baby mammoth-elephant emerges from the artificial womb, they’ll need to raise it to maturity. That assumes that they figure out how to recreate the nurturing environment of an intensely social and highly intelligent species. And they’ll need a lot of these babies to create a viable herd. We’re finally getting to the climate part.

The next step is to relocate the herd to Siberia — because that’s where the permafrost is. According to Sergey Zimov, a Russian geophysicist who also does work in paleoecology, the introduction of the mammoth-elephants into the wet mossy tundra should induce the emergence of dry grasslands as they existed in the Late Pleistocene, roughly 10,000–15,000 years ago.

This transformation of the arctic ecosystem, says Zimov, has multiple climate benefits. Grasslands will sequester more carbon in their root systems, and they’ll reflect more sunlight, which reduces atmospheric heating.

And the big win is that when the mighty herds of mammoth-elephants trample insulating layers of snow, it will allow the frigid arctic air to chill the permafrost and thereby retain the ancient methane held within. Goal achieved.

Their disingenuous posturing debases the public discourse around climate change, which remains the planet’s most pressing issue.

But it doesn’t pencil out. Suppose, optimistically, Colossal raises 100 healthy adult mammoth-elephants by 2040, and they double in population every 20 years. By 2200, they would have about 25,000 animals. Assuming you need a density of one beast per 10 square kilometers to have any ecological impact, those 25,000 would inhabit about one percent of Earth’s 22.8 million square kilometers of vulnerable permafrost.

So even if Colossal overcame the numerous formidable technological hurdles of creating hybrids of endangered elephants and an extinct relative, and the company was able to establish self-sustaining herds, and Zimov’s fuzzy speculations about the effect of large herbivores on the tundra proved correct, the impact would be negligible even in 2200, a century after the climate crisis will likely be resolved, one way or the other.

The smart people at Colossal know this, so why are they selling us their bioscience venture as a climate change solution?

To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at the people involved. Lead scientist George Church of Harvard has been a disruptive rockstar in the genetics world for three decades. The business guy is whiz-kid serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm, who has already built a portfolio of successful high-tech start-ups.

And then there are the money guys.

Among the investors are the Winkelvoss twins, who made billions in Bitcoin after successfully suing Mark Zuckerberg for stealing the idea for Facebook. When asked how Colossal would make money, Cameron Winkelvoss suggested, “there could be a lot of economic opportunity over time, which might include television or even parks for extinct animals, like "Jurassic Park.”

The lead investor is billionaire movie producer Thomas Tull, founder of Legendary Entertainment, the company that co-produced the movie “Jurassic World.”

The prevalence of media executives and high-tech finance types in the Colossal boardroom makes you wonder if the company’s ostensible environmental goals are secondary to a different agenda. There are zero climate scientists on their scientific advisory board. It seems likely that the true purpose of the ecosystems-cum-permafrost narrative is to leverage the virtuous cachet of fighting climate change and deflect ethical concerns around engineering transgenic species.

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The financial backers will deem the company a success if it spins out some valuable genetic engineering tools or opens up new areas in the bioscience market, such as the artificial womb.

The woolly mammoth, the permafrost and the saving-the-planet facade are for creating headlines and media buzz, which wouldn’t be so objectionable if climate change weren’t such a grave and urgent threat to the planet’s biosphere.

You can embrace the brilliant work Colossal is doing in genetics while rejecting the crass promotion of de-extinction as a meaningful climate measure. Their disingenuous posturing debases the public discourse around climate change, which remains the planet’s most pressing issue.

The crisis is escalating. Using climate advocacy as a phony marketing tool is a distraction we can ill afford.

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Frederick Hewett Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Frederick Hewett is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He writes about energy, climate, politics and Boston.

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