Can the woolly mammoth save us from global warming?

Finshots

Can the woolly mammoth save us from global warming?

Can the woolly mammoth save us from global warming? | Finshots Daily Newsletter

In today's Finshots we talk about a very interesting topic that's at the intersection of science, business and climate change


Business

The Story

There’s a new startup in town. It’s called Colossal and they are trying to bring back the Woolly Mammoth — an animal that went extinct some 4,000 years ago. As the company website notes —

Colossal’s landmark de-extinction project will be the resurrection of the Woolly Mammoth — or more specifically a cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the Woolly Mammoth. It will walk like a Woolly Mammoth, look like one, sound like one, but most importantly it will be able to inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the Mammoth’s extinction.

The team intends to deploy complex gene-editing technology —using which they’ll be editing the genetic material of the Asian Elephant so that it resembles that of a woolly mammoth. And if it works out, it may yield a very large and furry elephant, with small ears, a high-domed head and of course, long elegant tusks. The new animal will have traits of both species — a cold-resistant elephant with thick fur and extra fat to survive the extreme winters of the arctic.

It would be like something out of a Jurassic Park movie. But that’s not even the crazy bit. The crazy bit is that the company has raised $15 million from a clutch of private investors who believe that the woolly mammoth may help us battle climate change. Or more specifically global warming.

How? you ask.

Well, this is some crazy science. So buckle up as we dig into the basics.

Arctic lands are covered by something called Permafrost — a combination of soil and rock held together by ice. And as the name indicates, they’ve been frozen in time. However, as the Earth’s climate warms, the ice inside the permafrost melts, leaving behind water and soil. And the plant material in the soil — which otherwise would have remained frozen, will begin to rot and decompose. This process releases carbon-di-oxide and methane, thus warming the Earth’s atmosphere some more. This is generally bad news unless you could slow down the whole thing.

Enter — Woolly Mammoths. In large numbers, they could not only survive the frigid Arctic Winters but also help preserve the permafrost. They would trample trees, level the shrubs and leave only the grass behind. Grass absorbs less sunlight than trees and many believe this would help keep the ground relatively cold —thereby  preserving the permafrost.

How do we know all this?

Well, because that’s what Woolly Mammoths likely did when they roamed Siberia during the Ice Age. And the hope is that they’ll be able to replicate the same thing 10,000 years later. Also, if you're thinking why we can't just use humans and machines to trample trees in the Tundra—well, it's probably because it's going to be an expensive program— one that would need constant intervention. The woolly mammoth breeds at no cost and would likely be a more affordable long term solution.

The only problem — “Not everybody is convinced that this will work.”

As one article notes — “Even if everything goes as planned for Colossal, Lamm (the co-founder) thinks it would take about six years to birth a hybrid calf. Then it would take another fourteen years or so for their first animal to be old enough to reproduce. From there, the efforts would need to scale up massively to have any meaningful effect on the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. But even that best-case scenario comes too late for urgent climate goals.”

So what explains all the investor interest?

Well, it’s not just the narrative that’s compelling. It’s the whole theme of gene editing. If Colossal does succeed in its endeavour, then the company will have developed novel engineering and reproductive technology that they could potentially monetise elsewhere. They could even be contracted to invest in de-extinction efforts across the world.

So even if the climate change gambit doesn’t fully work out, Colossal and its investors may have opportunities to make a sizeable return on their investment and yeah, it’s probably the most bonkers story we've covered so far.

Until next time…

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