Woolly Mammoth and Marsupial: How Extinct Species Should Come Back

Sara Ord spent the last week talking to scientists about skin cells from a mouse-sized marsupial called Dunnart. The cells of the narrow-footed bag mouse were donated to the “De-Extinction” company where she works. Colossal Biosciencessent from Australia.

Ord’s job is to lead a team to figure out how to use gene editing to gradually alter the DNA in these cells to resemble that of a distantly related animal, the thylacine, a striped marsupial also known as the Tasmanian tiger or Thylacine and became extinct in 1936. If the team manages to create a Dunnart cell with enough thylacine DNA, a next step could be cloning to try to create embryos – and eventually live animals.

And that’s not all: Another Colossal project is even trying to turn Asian elephants into a kind of woolly mammoth by adding genes for cold resistance and thick red hair. There are no resurrected species yet. Ord’s job as “Director of Species Restoration” is about a – still – imaginary future in which a combination of DNA technology, stem cell research, gene editing and artificial wombs will not only lead to the resurrection of lost species, but also to the preservation of species said to be on the brink of extinction.

Ord chose this job after trying her hand at laboratory research, a hospital, and a software company. She says it was a natural development. She grew up with lots of pets herself and loves nature shows on Discovery Channel and National Geographic. “I’ve always loved animals,” she says.

Colossal Bioscience combines Hollywood with hard science. Funders include investor and entertainment mogul Thomas Tull and motivational author Tony Robbins. The ideas came from the laboratory of the not uncontroversial genetic researcher George Church, who has been promoting the resurrection of the woolly mammoth in the media since 2013, albeit with little practical success so far.

Ord’s mission is similar: it’s part communication, part science, mixed with futurism. What if your company actually succeeds in bringing the Tasmanian tiger – or something similar – back to the planet? Colossal Biosciences could then benefit from proceeds from tickets. Sounds like a touch of Jurassic Park. In the interview, Ord explains how the project should be understood. The program is already ambitious: the Tasmanian tiger is planned by 2025, the mammoth by 2027.

Technology Review: You have one of the most futuristic job titles we’ve seen.

Order: I was one of the first employees here at Colossal. I came with the CEO Ben [Lamm] together and we thought about what my title should be. We came across “Director of Species Restoration.” When I heard that, I immediately thought: Yes, this is the right job.

You could also have used “Director of Resuscitation Technology”.

That could be scary though, don’t you think? It’s about making what we do understandable for everyone.

How much of your work is communication?

I’d say it’s probably a third of my job. Most fun is explaining the Tasmanian tiger project that I lead. Why bring back the thylacine? He was at the top of the food chain in the Tasmanian ecosystem. And taking out an apex predator has a lot of negative effects. You then have a lot of prey in the area causing havoc because there is no population control anymore. Reintroduction into the Tasmanian ecosystem would be of tremendous value.

The Tasmanian tiger is a marsupial, but it is also a carnivore. So if that works, it might as well eat something fluffy. Are there animal lovers who are against this plan?

We had an overwhelmingly positive response. I think that’s mainly because this animal was hunted to extinction. And this is our chance to undo that.

What is the scientific part of your work?

I have a team of 12 genomic and phenotypic engineers. We also work with some embryologists and computational biologists. I read as many publications as possible, come into the lab myself and push the scientific side forward. And then it’s also important to participate in conversations about where we will put such an animal once we have it. How does it look? What are the ecological effects of reintroducing a species – and how does that help species that are currently threatened?

You have described in your blog that reviving a species requires multiple steps, including editing genes in the cells of a related species, cloning an embryo, and then releasing an animal into the wild. Which of these moves is the most speculative so far?

It’s really about understanding how many genes you have to change. The Tasmanian tiger is related to the entire Dasyurid family, which also includes the dunnart, the quoll, and the Tasmanian devil. But it’s still 70 million years [evolutionärer] Divergence – an extreme degree. So what does one need to change in a Dunnart or an Asian elephant to create a phenotype of a species that fills the same ecological niche as the Tasmanian tiger or woolly mammoth?

Do you have a stuffed Tasmanian tiger to work on? What is the starting point for the project?

There was a cub that was preserved in ethanol in the early 1900’s – it’s called the “miracle pup”. Our collaborators at the University of Melbourne were able to extract DNA from this sample and use it to create a very precise genome sequence. There are also many skins and museum samples that we have been able to obtain and are creating sequences from.

Do you have a timetable for when the first extinct species will reappear?

In any case. We estimate the year 2027 for the mammoth and 2025 for the Tasmanian tiger. The key difference is the gestation period. Elephants take around 18 to 22 months to conceive, while marsupials – and particularly the dunn species, which will be our surrogate species – take between 12 and 14 days. After that, the animal matures in the pouch.

There are studies showing that marsupials can transfer from one species’ pouch to another species’ pouch and grow well there. But we also have a team working on an “exo-bag”. This is an artificial pouch that the hatchlings can be placed in and given the same food, environment and exposure to light as a mother marsupial’s pouch.

Colossal always points out that you are dealing with a profit-oriented company. Then what exactly is the product? What are you going to sell?

I think Colossal can benefit in a number of ways. One of our products is the story. We are looking for many partners in the media to help us tell them. Another possibility is that we develop new technologies that can be licensed or spun off. We already have a first spin-off called FormBio [ein Biologie-Softwareunternehmen, Anm. d. Red.] – we are also leaders in gene editing.

And then we get to the heart of the matter, namely the species: the Tasmanian tiger or the woolly mammoth. We are planning partnerships with zoos. We see a world where we recreate the natural habitats of these creatures and then sell tickets for people to see.

How much would you pay to see a Tasmanian tiger yourself?

I invest many hours of my life in the cause. So all the money in the world.


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