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As the climate crisis worsens, technology companies are increasingly sparking conversations about how tech can make an impact. There’s talk about intelligent grids and using data and machine learning to combat climate change in a variety of ways. But one company, Colossal, which emerged from stealth today, is taking an especially unique approach: wrangling massive amounts of data — specifically biological data — in an attempt to bring the currently extinct woolly mammoth back to life.
The idea is that returning the woolly mammoth to its native arctic grasslands can help repair the currently degraded ecosystem and act as a step toward repairing our planet. And this work is already well underway — the well-known Harvard biologist George Church and his team at the university have been making progress on the initiative for years. Now, Church and cofounder Ben Lamm, a serial entrepreneur in the emerging tech space, are spinning the academic research into a startup to accelerate the work, better fund it, and take it to “the next level.”
“Being able to truly understand genomics and synthetic biology and dig deeper into being able to preserve and recreate life, I think [those] are pretty fundamental steps towards that future,” Lamm told VentureBeat. “Decades from now, I think there are many cascading scientific revolutions that could come from this.”
The woolly mammoth project
While the concept may sound like science fiction (which indeed has always been an inspiration for Lamm’s work), the team says there are no big science hurdles standing in the way.
“As George says, the science is solved,” said Eriona Hysolli, head of biological sciences at Colossal. She added that “the tools are there” and “it’s just about scaling it up.”
At Harvard, Hysolli spent six years working in Church’s lab, developing and optimizing novel genetic tools for making genome editing much more flexible. Specifically, Hysolli, Church, and team have been tackling the woolly mammoth project using CRISPR, the popular and sometimes controversial gene editing technology. They’re also building software that will be used to assemble genomes.
Lamm says the company believes it will have its first woolly mammoth calves in the next four to six years. And while the company is laser-focused on delivering on this and repopulating the arctic with the mammoth, the technique could be replicated to “de-extinct” other species and even conserve ones that are currently endangered. Almost like a hard drive, Lamm says the technology Colossal is building can be used to “back up” and preserve critically endangered species and bring them back to life.
All about the data
“In biology, it’s all about big data. And at Colossal, it’s about a colossal amount of data,” Hysolli said.
But it’s not just the fact that the genome sequence itself is huge; parsing all that data is also a tremendous challenge. And while working on de-extinction, the team also intends to better the tools currently available to biologists so they can more easily make comparative analysis between genomes. Often, researchers have to go to multiple data stores to get the data they need, Lamm says, adding that “they’re not normalized and not connected.”
“Different universities and scientists in different labs are leveraging data from a different perspective. They have their own databases, so I think there’s a huge opportunity for normalization of that data, and to speed up the processing of that data and to build tools on top of that data,” Lamm added.
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