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Biotech firm says it can resurrect extinct woolly mammoth

The Colossal bioscience company claims CRISPR genetic technology can be used to de-extinct the animal, which died out in the Holocene epoch.

Woolly mammoths walking in a snow-covered field

The woolly mammoth once roamed North America and northern Eurasia

A technology entrepreneur and a geneticist on Monday launched a new biotech firm which they say will bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life.

What do we know about the project?

Calling itself Colossal, the biosciences company claims CRISPR genetic technology can be used to bring back the animal, which went extinct during the Holocene epoch over 11,000 years ago. 

"Never before has humanity been able to harness the power of this technology to rebuild ecosystems, heal our Earth and preserve its future through the repopulation of extinct animals," technology entrepreneur and Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm said in a statement.

Harvard University geneticist George Church is also a co-founder of the company.

"Colossal leverages the exponential progress made in technologies for reading and writing DNA and applies it to iconic ecological conservation and carbon sequestration issues," Church said.

Scientists have managed to find mammoth tusks, bones and other material to try to sequence the animal's DNA. This DNA would then be inserted into the genome of the Asian elephant to form an "elephant-mammoth hybrid," according to the company.

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The firm says it has managed to raise $15 million (€12.6 million) so far from investors.

Advocates of "de-extinction" say the process could help humans gain new knowledge regarding biology, evolution and technology. Supporters may also believe it is morally just to bring back species that went extinct due to human activities.

The resurrection of extinct species could also repair damaged ecosystems. In the case of the woolly mammoth, Colossal believes the animal could revitalize the Arctic grasslands, whose properties can mitigate global warming. The company offered no details on how.

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Could there be downsides to de-extinction?

The idea of de-extinction could have its drawbacks, however.

A March 2017 study published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal found that de-extinction programs would be incredibly expensive.

The scientists behind the study believe the public or private money spent on de-extinction efforts would be better used to protect existing species.

Other downsides include resurrected animals carrying new pathogens that could possibly infect humans, along with how they will impact the environment. De-extinction may also raise animal welfare concerns, along with those who see the process as "playing God." 

The United Nations said in a 2019 report that 1 million animals, plant and fungi species face extinction in the coming decades. Climate change is also taking a toll on species such as polar bears, cheetahs and green turtles.