6 questions with Ben Lamm, the Austinite trying to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth

Table of Contents

Would you believe us if we told you scientists are working to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction? What if we also told you some of that work is happening right here in Austin?

It sounds like a science fiction novel, but it’s not. Colossal Biosciences, a genetic engineering and de-extinction company, made shockwaves a few years ago when it announced its plan to resurrect the woolly mammoth (genetically, at least) and reintroduce it to Arctic ecosystems.

Yesterday, the company announced its next de-extinction pursuit: the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger.

Curious how this is even possible? We were, too. So we spoke with Colossal’s co-founder and CEO Ben Lamma native Austinite, by the way — about the new endeavor and what it could mean for the future of conservation.

How did you first get interested in biosciences, and what led you to this venture?

I grew up in high school and in the 90s, with all the movies about the future, sci-fi, “Jurassic Park” … and I was very, very passionate about genetics. But I went with the more general technology, entrepreneur route.

A couple of years ago, I thought that my next company would be a software, computational biology, AI company that was focused on synthetic biology. So I reached out to George Church, who’s arguably the father of synthetic biology. George is just amazing.

When I started talking to him, I realized that not only was I passionate about developing technologies, both software and hardware for synthetic biology, but I got really excited about de-extinction and how it could be massively helpful for conservation. … So, after a couple meetings with George, I was pretty hooked.

Can you explain how this process works?

We’re in this phase of genomics, in genetic engineering, where we’ve gotten really good at reading DNA. … And we’re now getting better and better at editing DNA using technologies like CRISPR and others, and then we’re also starting to get decent at synthesizing different sized blocks of DNA.

And so, given those advancements over the last 10 years, but specifically in the last five, what we do from a de-extinction perspective is we take DNA from an extinct species. In the case of the woolly mammoth, it’s DNA from tissue samples or from actual bones that have been recovered and been frozen in the permafrost.

We take that, we go through the sequencing process you go through with ancient DNA and damaged DNA. … Then you have to go through the process of actually assembling the genome, building the genome for these different segments.

We just announced a few weeks ago, with the Vertebrate Genomes Project as a collaborator, that we developed the first T to T, like telomere to telomere, genome assembly of the Asian elephant. Which is … the closest living relative to the woolly mammoth. but it’s also one of the most complete genomes on the planet now, it is actually one that we created.

So once you have those two genomes, [of the extinct species and its closest living relative] you can start to use all these different types of technologies in software, in AI, to start the analysis of, where are they different? How are they different? … And then with that, you can use technologies like CRISPR to take those sequences and put them into the Asian elephant architecture.

And then, once you have a patented cell … you then put that in itself into an embryo, and you start the process of cell division. You can either use artificial wombs, which we’re in the process of developing, or you use IVF and actually insert it into an existing surrogate species, in this case, the Asian elephant. And 22 months later, all things go great, you have your first mammoth calves.

When you first announced this goal, you identified a five- or six-year timeline. Are you still on that timeline?

On the mammoth, we’re still confident in a five- to six-year timeline. … I wouldn’t say that we are ahead of schedule, but I’d say we’re right on track. Some parts of the project are going a little faster than anticipated, some a little bit slower.

We have a couple of these really big engineering efforts, but most of these are engineering challenges. They’re not science challenges. So we have all of the tools, intelligence we need. It’s really just about finding them and creating modifications to them to make them more efficient in their process. So there’s no science game, like we don’t have to discover some massive thing in biology or break the laws of physics to achieve this.

A lithograph of the thylacine

The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was an apex predator in Tasmania before it was hunted to extinction in the 1930s. | Biodiversity Heritage Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why did you choose the Tasmanian tiger as your next de-extinction project?

As a de-extinction company, our focus is on developing technologies that can be leveraged for de-extinction, and then also leveraging, how does that apply to conservation? Any species that we work on … we have to have an ecological impact. We have to understand, how is this positive for the world?

The Tasmanian tiger, it’s a sad story because the last one died off in 1936 in a zoo in Hobart, in Tasmania. It was hunted to extinction by mankind, so this wasn’t a natural extinction process.

And they were the largest carnivorous marsupial, they’re really a unique animal because … they were the apex predator in Tasmania, in southern Australia. There’s no other species that’s coming in to replace them in that food chain.

When you remove an apex predator or keystone species, that ecosystem starts to degrade. And so now you have problems … that probably wouldn’t have existed if the thylacine still existed, because the sick and injured animals, the slower animals, would have been eradicated first by this apex predator.

There’s an entire ecological impact study that we’ve done and we’ve talked to leading conservationists and ecologists about, as well as the fact that it was completely eradicated by man. And so that’s the reasoning behind it, coupled with the fact that we have closest living relatives, we have incredible tissue samples, we have a genome that’s even more complete than our mammoth genomes. Given all of those, it makes a great candidate.

What does your timeline look like for the thylacine?

What’s interesting is, the gestational side on this particular marsupial is about 14 days. That’s very different from [the Asian elephant’s of] 22 months. … With the thylacine, we actually have a better genome, better samples, easier and better gestation, more multiplex editing.

But gestational challenges and elephants are different than that of marsupials. And the DNA is more fragmented, so it takes more time on assembly. So, there are different challenges. Given the fact that the gestation of marsupial’s is so much shorter, I think it’s a likely candidate to be faster.

You’re from Austin — do you think your passion for the environment and ecosystems impacted at all by outdoor spaces here in Central Texas?

I was born and raised in Austin. I split my time between Austin, Dallas, and Boston, Massachusetts. Most of our computational biology team is based in Austin, so the part where we’re doing all of the software and the analysis.

I was on the board of Waller Creek Conservancy (Editor’s note: Now Waterloo Greenway Conservancy). So, I’m a big champion of outdoor spaces and the environment.

I’ve always just been really passionate as a kid. I traveled a lot. I got to visit and see a lot of different cultures and visit a lot of parks. I spent a lot of time as a kid in Africa. And so I think just being around different cultures, being around different nature, and then also seeing how different people interact and live with their nature and within nature, probably was massively informative and influential to me.

This piece is part of our ATXtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

More from ATXtoday