Colossal Biosciences: Helping Avoid a Climate-Fueled Mass Extinction

With the Earth experiencing its hottest day on record — so far — this summer, 2023 is on track to be the most scorching year in recorded history, raising serious concerns about climate change and those most vulnerable to extreme heat. As the World Meteorological Organization anticipates the Earth to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming (above preindustrial levels) by 2027, up to 14% of all plants and animals may be facing imminent extinction. While these statistics are incredibly alarming, recent innovations in gene mapping and de-extinction have sparked hope for the future of our biodiversity. 

Well known for advancements in resurrecting the woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger, and dodo, Colossal Biosciences is hard at work using the same science behind de-extinction to genetically “back up” endangered species, preserving their chromosomal DNA so that populations can be revived in the event of a catastrophic extinction. Founded by serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard geneticist Dr. George Church, Colossal Biosciences has partnered with the Vertebrate Genomes Project and has already sequenced the genetic code of beloved endangered species such as the Asian and African elephants. 

With the VGP’s goal of generating near-perfect reference genomes for the planet’s over 70,000 vertebrate species, Colossal’s partnership “shows how cooperation and advancements in science can ensure that the animals we love and need to have a healthy planet will be with us forever,” Lamm told Business Wire.

“At Colossal, we believe that purposeful advancements in science are critical to the conservation efforts needed to restore our planet. The partnership with VGP is essential to this larger body of work.”

The Existential Threat of Climate Change

Humans may be able to adapt to the effects of climate change through lifestyle changes, but with evolution taking thousands to millions of years on the species level, our flora and fauna are extremely susceptible to changes in global climate. Climate change is already having innumerable impacts on species and altering everything from their natural ranges to their interspecies interactions, and their ability to provide priceless ecosystem services like pollination and carbon sequestration. 

In late July 2023, ocean temperatures off the coast of South Florida hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit — an astounding and alarming record.

“Water temperatures are now so elevated that it is likely becoming an existential threat for even the hardiest of corals on Florida’s coral reef,” said Phanor Montoya Maya, marine biologist and restoration program manager for the nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation. “Unfortunately, the water is now so hot that we are seeing some corals die as a result of heat stress.”

While ecologists project that the current rate of species extinction is anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the background rate (or what’s natural without human interference), increasing temperatures will only exacerbate these rates as species fail to adapt. According to a report conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, global temperature increases will have a drastic effect on some of the world’s most iconic and valuable plants and animals. This report, Feeling The Heat, predicts that a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius — what some scientists are expecting us to reach this decade — could mean the end of the bumblebee, hippopotamus, and snow leopard.

These losses, while highly devastating, are unsurprising, considering that the average abundance of species has fallen by 20% since 1900. By 2050, Earth is expected to lose as much as 10% of its total biodiversity and invaluable abundance of commodities such as coral reefs and coffee. Coral reefs not only buffer shorelines from storms and flooding, but also provide habitats for fish, as well as economic and recreational opportunities. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over half a billion people rely on coral reefs for food, income, or coastal protection.

The human impact on the coral reef has already caused the first confirmed instance of a species going extinct as a direct result of climate change. The Bramble Cay melomys, declared extinct in 2015, was a ratlike rodent endemic to Bramble Cay, an uninhabited island off the coast of Papua New Guinea along the Great Barrier Reef. With global warming and rising sea levels inundating the small land parcel with water, 97% of Bramble Cay’s vegetation — the food and shelter for the Bramble Cay melomys — was wiped out between 2004 and 2014, leading to the melomys’ extinction a year later.

Colossal Biosciences: Using Disruptive Conservation To Disrupt the Extinction Process

While conserving biodiversity is a key sustainable development goal, with anywhere from 200 to 100,000 species going extinct every year (estimates vary due to uncertainty of the exact number of species Earth houses), it’s important to embrace unconventional approaches toward supporting wildlife to prevent what happened to the melomys. Disruptive conservation, the use of novel technology to accelerate the preservation of biodiversity, is becoming an increasingly favorable conservation tactic, with companies like Colossal Biosciences at the forefront of the initiative. 

From genome editing to cloning, and selective breeding, Ben Lamm tells Business Insider, “​​By gathering the smartest minds across investing, genomics, conservation, and synthetic biology, we have the opportunity to reverse human-inflicted biodiversity loss while developing technologies for both conservation and human health care.” 

In addition to the de-extinction potential that “backing up” an endangered species provides, Colossal’s DNA sequencing technology offers a unique opportunity to increase the genetic diversity or resistance to disease of species at risk of extinction. This is done by editing the genome of an organism to select for certain traits and cloning the organism with the intent of establishing a breeding population.

With climate change set to decimate the abundance of many species, preserving the genetic diversity of our wildlife and ecosystems is becoming more and more essential. As global temperatures rise, most species are expected to cluster toward higher elevations, leading to the widespread spillover of diseases and increased instances of genetically similar populations. In a world that’s coming closer and closer to the forewarned 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, we cannot sit idle to extinction and species homogenization, regardless of how extreme disruptive conservation methods can be. 

As Colossal’s evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro tells Wired, “Humans are already responsible for the extinction of so many creatures, and species are now disappearing at a rate so quickly that evolution simply cannot keep up. One could argue that if we’re going to wipe out animals we should give them a fighting chance, right?”

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