But cloning isn’t the only possible path to de-extinction. In September 2021, the startup Colossal launched with the announcement that it had raised $15 million to bring back the woolly mammoth. Although Colossal positions itself as a leader in de-extinction—its website has a whole page dedicated to the term—the startup isn’t exactly resurrecting woolly mammoths. There isn’t a surviving mammoth genome that’s complete enough to implant directly into an egg cell, so cloning is out of the question. What Colossal’s scientists want to do instead is use their knowledge of the mammoth genome to edit the DNA of an Asian elephant so that it more closely resembles that of their ancient, hairier, cousins.
“We’re not de-extincting the mammoth. We’re de-extincting genes to essentially make Asian elephants cold-tolerant,” says Colossal CEO Ben Lamm. The end result would be an elephant-mammoth hybrid that Lamm describes as a “functional mammoth” or an “Arctic elephant.” Eventually Lamm wants to release the Arctic elephants into the Siberian tundra, where he hopes they will help recreate the ancient steppe ecosystem, restore grasslands, and help keep carbon locked in the permafrost. (Whether this would actually happen or not is up for debate.)
Colossal has already sized up a spot for its functional mammoths. Pleistocene Park in the northeastern corner of Russia is a nature reserve maintained by the Russian ecologist Sergey Zimonv and his son, Nikita. The 50-square-mile stretch of tundra is being repopulated with yaks, horses, and bison that the Zimovs hope will uproot and trample away shrubs and trees, making way for the grasslands that covered the area during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago. A woolly mammoth—or at least an Asian elephant playing the role—would be the park’s crowning glory.
Despite the nod to Jurassic Park, Lamm says that his goal with Colossal isn’t to directly monetize the mammoths themselves, but to patent and license other technology the company develops along the way. For example, they might need to create giant artificial wombs to grow the mammoth-elephant hybrids, and that technology might help extremely premature human babies survive outside the body. Other techniques they develop for gene editing or storing animal DNA might be helpful for scientific research or conservation efforts. “I think you may get more value out of the technology than the resulting genomes,” Lamm says, although he’s not “closing the door” to patenting whole animals one day.
A project at the nonprofit Revive & Restore, which helped clone the black-footed ferret, is using a similar gene-editing approach to Colossal, but this time to bring back the extinct passenger pigeon. In both of these cases, the aim isn’t to perfectly recreate the extinct species, but to create a hybrid animal that is close enough to the extinct one that it fits into the same ecological niche as its long-dead predecessor. Passenger pigeons may have once been the most numerous birds on the planet, says Ben Novak, a scientist who leads the passenger pigeon project at Revive & Restore. Before they went extinct in 1914, the birds lived in dense flocks across the US and Canada, and their diet of seeds, fruit, and nuts helped build the forests of the northeastern US. Reintroducing the species—or one like it—to the area might help protect these fragile forest ecosystems.
A hybrid approach to de-extinction might be inventive enough to qualify for patent protection. Since mammoth-elephants have never existed in nature, they might not run afoul of the rules that exclude clones from patenting. One recent paper in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences noted that some legal experts are confident that de-extinct species can be patented, at least in the US. (In the European Union, patents can be denied on moral grounds, much to the chagrin of the scientists behind a balding mouse created to test hair loss treatments.) The authors point to a few reasons why companies might want to patent de-extinct animals: to entice investors with the promise of future licensing revenue, to stop other companies from working on the same animals, and to make sure they have exclusive rights to display the animal in a zoo or park.