Why the CIA is trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth

US spy agency has invested in biotech firm trying to bring back extinct animals through DNA editing

A wooly mammoth skeleton in the National Fossil Hall in Washington DC
Woolly mammoth skeleton at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
(Image credit: Saul Loeb/Contributor via Getty Images)

A CIA-funded company has joined high-profile investors including Peter Thiel and Paris Hilton in pumping money into a project to bring back the woolly mammoth.

The public portfolio of In-Q-Tel, the spy agency’s investments arm, lists firms including Colossal Biosciences, which “hopes to use advanced genetic sequencing” to resurrect “the giant, ice-age mammoth”, The Intercept reported. Colossal’s goal is to “see the woolly mammoth thunder upon the tundra once again”, according to the Dallas-based company’s website.

There is “no way to bring back the woolly mammoth as it was 10,000 years ago”, said Live Science. But “by using DNA editing tools, scientists can insert cold-resistant characteristics into the DNA sequences of modern elephants” to create a “proxy animal” with “mammoth-like characteristics”. Colossal is also trying to bring back the Tasmanian tiger, “a wolf-like marsupial that went extinct in the 1930s”, and the dodo bird.

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The company’s stated motives are “altruistic, if vague”, said The Intercept. Colossal claims that the bid to “jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat” can pave the way to “rewild vital landscapes, ending the threat of extinction faced by many species currently in existence, having a positive net effect on carbon offset, and supporting the local economies dependent on the targeted, affected habitats”.

The CIA, meanwhile, “is less interested in thundering mammoths and roaring thylacines than it is in the underlying genetic engineering technology that Colossal intends to develop”, according to Live Science. In September, Joe Biden signed an executive order to “advance biotechnology” towards innovative solutions in health, climate change and economic security.

Not everyone is convinced that Colossal’s project can succeed. “De-extinction is a fairy-tale science” and “more about media attention for the scientists”, Jeremy Austin, director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Gizmodo argued that the whether you agree with that verdict “depends on what you expect out of the process”.

“Something mammoth-like” looks likely come out of Colossal’s work, said the site, but whether “the final result is akin to the work of Lazarus or Frankenstein is another matter”.

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