The CIA wants to bring back the woolly mammoth

The CIA wants to bring back the woolly mammoth

Mammoth skeletons in a row.

Mammoth skeletons at auction in 2017.
Photo: Rob Stothard (Getty Images)

A CIA-funded venture capital firm has officially bet on the return of extinct species like the woolly mammoth and the thylacine, according to a public portfolio released this month and spotted by The interception.

The company is called In-Q-Tel and its mission (according to its website) is to invest in technologies that enhance the national security of the United States. In-Q-Tel is more than 20 yearsbut only now has its taxpayers’ money been directed towards the genetically modified resurrection of extinct animals, or de-extinction.

In-Q-Tel has now added Colossal Biosciences to its public portfolio; in other words, the CIA invested taxpayers’ money in de-extinction efforts. Colossal made headlines last year when it announced plans to bring back wooly mammoth, the noticeably hairier cousin of the elephant, which died out about 4,000 years ago. The company’s stated goal is to deliver a mammoth calf within five years.

Colossal followed up on that statement this summer, when it announced it would also try to resurrect the thylacineor Tasmanian tiger, a wolf-like marsupial that was driven to extinction by overhunting in the early 20th century.

Colossal argues that “rewilding” these extinct creatures will support local economies and help reverse the effects of climate change by having a net positive effect on carbon offsetting.

Critics of de-extinction raise several issues: they argue that the original habitats of most extinct animals no longer exist and that funds spent on de-extinction would be better invested in protecting species that still exist. Colossal and his supporters argue that funding the genomic research behind deextinction and funding conservation work are not mutually exclusive.

What complicates matters on a conceptual level is that whatever animals are assembled from the genomes of extinct species and their closest extant cousins ​​would not be the same animals that went extinct. years ago. These would be species by proxy: animals that look like extinct ones and might act like them.

Even if the de-extinction proceeds perfectly—that is, without harming either the animals used to produce the proxy animals or the proxy animals themselves—behavioral characteristics cannot be extrapolated from genes. In other words, the animals will not have a pre-existing population to teach them to behave like a mammoth or a thylacine.

A caged thylacine.

A thylacine in captivity in the 1930s.
Photo: Thematic News Agency/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

On his websiteColossal also declares his intention to eventually resurrect the dodo bird, a flightless bird endemic to Mauritius that was hunted to extinction in the 17th century.

In a 2019 De-Extinction Debate, Colossal co-founder George Church said bringing back the mammoth isn’t just a vanity project, or something concocted in an effort to recreate a cool animal. The research involved in mammoth demise could mean helping cure the herpes virus in Asian elephants. Church said questions of human guilt over extinction are “almost irrelevant” and “the question is, do these species have something to offer us?”

Since In-Q-Tel’s mission is to invest in technology that enhances national security, you might be wondering if there are furry proboscidean or carnivorous marsupial super-soldiers on the horizon. Oh, was it just me? The reality is much simpler, but as simple as the actual feat of disextinction.

In a blog post published on the company’s website on September 20, two executives highlighted the importance of understanding genomics and applying new computing power to biological datasets. “Strategically it’s less about mammoths and more about ability,” they wrote.

Along with Colossal, In-Q-Tel named Chi Botanic and Living Carbon (both working on genetically modified plants) as companies doing useful research in complex bioengineering. Colossal is the only one of the three that In-Q-Tel has in its portfolio.

CIA agents could, however, profit from the research. The Intercept reported that In-Q-Tel board members are permitted to sit on the boards of companies in which the company invests. In 2016, the The Wall Street Journal found that half of In-Q-Tel’s board members were tied to companies in which the company had invested, raising ethical concerns.

Even if the timeline is short, disextinction is still a long way off. It depends on what you want from the process. Something mammoth or thylacine might just come out of Colossal’s work, now thanks to CIA funding. But whether you think the end result is akin to the work of Lazarus or Frankenstein is another matter.

More: Forget the Woolly Mammoth: Let’s Resurrect Some Extinct Plants

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