Updated: Oct 31, 2022
The CIA Invests in Woolly Mammoth De-extinction project
Why De extinction will lead to Technological Supremacy
Implications for the Synthetic Biology industry and Jobs of the Future
In September of 2022, the Central Intelligence Agency announced it was investing in a woolly mammoth de-extinction project by the company Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences. At first glance, this development may seem as though it belongs in a news segment about waste of taxpayer funds. What is the angle here? The truth is de-extinction is at the forefront of the ever-powerful synthetic biology industry. Reviving an extinct mammoth is the equivalent of being the first country to land on the moon. Not only does that country get bragging rights, but it also inherits all the technology to achieve the feat. Think about how NASA’s moon missions benefited the industry, the telecommunications industry, and many aspects of human civilization at-large.
Now, imagine the United States had controlling knowledge about how to revive an extinct animal as complex as a 12 ft, 4-ton mammal with a gestation period measuring in years rather than months. It is a moonshot. Along with leading in de-extinction, that country might also be the best in genetic engineering, and therefore better able to develop projects ranging from novel materials development to cancer treatments. You may also be the best in the development of synthetic wombs, which is a technology in its infancy, but may be necessary to revive a mammoth. This has implications for human health and infant mortality. In recent years, the United States has been in an arms race with China in a multitude of emerging technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence to hypersonic missiles. The implications are financial, defense-related, biomedical, and so on. The truth is, no one quite knows where this is going, although everyone is certain they do not want to be left out.
So, how would a Mammoth be revived? Well, scientists have uncovered mammoths frozen in the arctic for tens of thousands of years and have successfully extracted and sequenced their genetic code. However, this code is incomplete, and needs to be stitched together with that of the extant Asian elephant, its closest living relative. Synthetic DNA allows scientists to “print” segments of synthetic but known sequences of DNA of the woolly mammoth and combine them with segments of the Asian elephants DNA. New tools such as CRISPR, the Nobel-prize winning technology that allows scientists to more easily and efficiently cut and paste DNA segments together is instrumental in this process as well. These combined genomes are then placed into egg cells, and ultimately into an Asian elephant surrogate or artificial womb. One could imagine the issues with an Asian elephant (much smaller than the African elephant) delivering a woolly mammoth to term after almost two years of gestation, not to mention the ethical implications of attempting this risky procedure on an endangered species.
The government’s heightened involvement in de-extinction would also give them a seat at the table in the establishment of ethical frameworks and protocols for this controversial yet powerful field. After all, synthetic biology, like nuclear bombs, has the potential to end human civilization, in this case, through the development of novel diseases that can attack everything from our crops, ecosystems, and humans themselves. Think of a novel Ebola virus, more transmissible via droplets in the air, or the reengineering of the extinct smallpox virus. Afterall, given the woolly mammoth de-extinction project, the permanence of extinction is now called into question, and de-extinction would be an even easier feat to achieve for viral and bacterial revival.
Let us not forget all the other industries synthetic biology is tied to: Computers through DNA computing, drug development and discovery, material development via metabolic engineering of cells, and so on. In many ways, the countries that dominate synthetic biology may find themselves also dominating a new industry and the jobs it brings, along with establishing or maintaining an outsized influence in world affairs.
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