How much would you pay to see a woolly mammoth?

How much would you pay to see a woolly mammoth?
Sara Ord spent her week chatting with scientists about skin cells taken from a mouse-sized marsupial called “the dunnart”. The cells were collected from Australian collaborators and sent to Colossal Biosciences, the “de-extinction” company where Ord works.

Ord’s job is to lead a team that’s figuring out how to use gene editing to gradually change the DNA of those cells so that it begins to resemble that of a distantly related animal, the thylacine, a striped marsupial predator also known as the Tasmanian tiger that went extinct in 1936.

If they can make a dunnart cell with enough thylacine DNA, the next step is to use cloning to try to create an embryo–and, eventually, an animal. Another project is to make Asian elephants look like woolly mammoths by adding genes for cold resistance, thick red hair, and another.



There are no resurrected species yet, of course. Ord’s role as “director, species rehabilitation” is about a future in which a high-tech combination DNA technology, stem-cell research and gene editing could not only lead to the resurrection of species that have been lost but also preserve species that are close to disappearing.

Ord landed the job after she tried her hand at lab research, work in a hospital and software development. It’s a natural fit, she says. She grew up with many pets, and she watched a lot on National Geographic and Discovery Channel. She says, “I have always loved animals.”

It’s clear that Colossal is both a Hollywood production and hard science. Its financial backers include investor and entertainment mogul Thomas Tull and Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, and its ideas originate in the laboratory of the outspoken gene scientist George Church, who has been promoting mammoth resurrection in the media since 2013, though with few results yet.

Ord’s job consists of part communication, part science and part futurism. What if the company is able to recreate the thylacine or something similar? Ord believes that Colossal could make a profit selling tickets to the show.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Ord says the company hopes to produce a thylacine in just two years, by 2025, and a mammoth by 2027.

This interview has been edited to improve clarity and length .

You have one of the more futuristic job titles I have seen.

I was one of the very first employees at Colossal. Ben [Lamm], the CEO, was there with me and we were discussing what my title should have been. We came up with “director, species restoration”. The moment I heard it, I knew it was the right one.

I would have gone with “director, resurrection technology.”

But that can be scary. Right? It’s trying to make what we do easy for everyone.

How much of your job is communication?

I would say that it is probably a third. The thylacine program, which I manage, is the most interesting. Why is the thylacine being brought back? The thylacine was an important predator in the Tasmanian ecosystem. You can see the negative effects of removing an apex predator. There are a lot of predators in the environment. They can cause havoc and chaos because there is no population control. It will be a huge benefit to bring back the thylacine in the Tasmanian ecosystem.

The thylacine is a marsupial, but it’s also a carnivore. If this works, something fluffy could be chomped. Do you know of any animal lovers who are against this plan?

We received an overwhelming positive response. It’s because this animal was hunted down to extinction, I believe. This is our chance to change that.

What is the science part of your job?

I have a team of 12 genome engineers and phenotype engineers. We also collaborate with some of our embryologists as well as our computational biologists. It’s reading as many papers and getting my hands dirty in the lab to advance science. It’s also being part of conversations about -once we have the mammoth, once we have the thylacine, where do we put it? What does that look? What is the ecological impact of bringing back the species, and how can this help endangered species?

You’ve blogged about how bringing back a species involves quite a few steps, including editing genes in the cells of a related species, cloning an embryo, and then bringing an animal into the world. Which one is the most speculative of these?

It’s all about understanding how many genes to edit. The whole family of dasyurids includes the thylacine, the quoll, the dunnart and the Tasmanian devil. But it’s still about 70 million years of [evolutionary] divergence–an extreme amount of divergence. What do you need to edit in an Asian elephant or a dunnart to create a phenotype that fills the same ecological niche as the thylacine and woolly mammoth?

Does your stuffed thylacine have a base from which to work? What is the starting point of the project?

There was a pup that was preserved in ethanol in the early 1900s–it’s called the “miracle pup.” Our collaborators at the University of Melbourne have been able to extract DNA from that sample and generate a really high-[accuracy] genome sequence from this. We are also generating sequences from pelts that are in circulation.

Do you have a timeline of when the first extinct species will roam again?

Absolutely. For the mammoth, we are projecting a 2027 timeline, and for the thylacine, 2025. The gestation period is the key difference. Elephants take around 18 to 22 months to gestate, whereas marsupials–and especially the dunnart, which will be our surrogate species for the thylacine–are anywhere between 12 and 14 days. It matures in its pouch.

There have been studies showing that marsupials can be transferred from one species’ pouch to another species’ pouch and grow just fine. We also have a team that is working on an “exo pouch.” This pouch will allow the pups to have the same nutrition, environment, and light exposure as a mother marsupial pouch.

Colossal makes a point of saying it’s a for-profit company. What exactly is the product? What product will you sell?

I think there are a few ways that Colossal can make a profit. One of our products, the story. Right? We will have many partners in the media to tell our story. Another advantage is that new technologies we develop along the way can be licensed or spun off. FormBio, a biology software company, was our first spinout. We also have a large team of genome editors.

Then we get to the meat, which is the species: either the mammoth or the thylacine. We are interested in partnering with zoos. I believe there is a world where we create rewilding areas and sell tickets to see these species in their natural habitat.

How much would you pay to see a thylacine?

I put hours and hours into this. I would pay any amount of money to have my life back.

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