The CIA is funding research to resurrect extinct animals — including the woolly mammoth and the tiger-like thylacine — according to news reports.
Through a CIA-funded venture capital firm called In-Q-Tel, the US intelligence agency has committed money to Texas-based technology company Colossal Biosciences. According to Colossal’s website, the company’s goal is to “see it woolly mammoth thunder in the tundra once again” through the use of genetic engineering — that is, using technology to edit an organism DNA.
Colossal has also expressed interest in resurrecting the extinct thylacineor Tasmanian tiger — a wolf-like marsupial that went extinct in the 1930s — as well as the extinct dodo bird.
For its part, the CIA is less interested in roaring mammoths and roaring thylacines than in the underlying genetic engineering technology Colossal intends to develop, according to an In-Q-Tel. suspension.
“Strategically, it’s less about mammoths and more about capability,” senior In-Q-Tel officials wrote.
Liberation may sound like science fiction—and, to a degree, it is. There is no way to bring the woolly mammoth back to the way it was ten thousand years ago. However, using DNA editing tools, scientists can introduce cold-resistant traits into the DNA sequences of modern elephants, making them genetically similar to woolly mammoths. The resulting creature would not be a mammoth, per se. rather, it would be a proxy animal more like an elephant with mammoth-like features.
The foundation of this process is a gene editing method called CRISPR — genetic “scissors” that scientists can use to cut, paste, and replace specific gene sequences in an organism’s DNA. (Several of the researchers behind CRISPR won in 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry).
According to the In-Q-Tel blog post, the investment in this project will help the US government “set the ethical as well as technological standards” for genetic engineering technology and keep the US one step ahead of competing nations that may also be interested in reading, writing and altering the genetic code.
Not everyone is so optimistic about using genetic engineering tools to revive extinct animals. Critics have warned that, even if a company is able to build a healthy mammoth substitute, the mammoth’s natural habitat no longer exists—and, even if it did, the genetic code cannot teach an animal how to thrive in an unknown ecosystem, according to Gizmodo. Some scientists also argue that money spent on release projects could go much further if applied to the conservation of living animals.