Politics

This Texan Aims to Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth to Save the Planet – Texas Monthly

Ben Lamm has always come off as the type of tech super-entrepreneur whose creations might either save humanity from itself or destroy us all. Or at least that’s how he’s styled himself. His corporate headshots tend to show him, wavy hair flowing past his shoulders, with dramatic lighting and, say, a spaceship in the background. His companies’ websites have the feeling of sci-fi movie posters, and his enthusiastic monologues tend to hurtle from trillion-dollar ambitions to UFO research to carbon-eating robots.

So it was with equal parts curiosity and a cocked eyebrow that I recently met up with Lamm at the Soho House roof deck overlooking Austin’s South Congress Avenue to hear about his latest project. He’d handed over the CEO reins at Hypergiant—the company he launched in 2018 to create artificial-intelligence systems for space satellites, undersea robots, and other advanced machinery—and this time he was onto something really big, I’d been told.

The new business is called, naturally, Colossal, and it aims to reintroduce the long-extinct woolly mammoth to the Arctic. Or close to that: technically, Colossal, which officially launches today, aims to create a new kind of hybrid beast by combining mammoth DNA recovered from the Siberian permafrost with that of an Asian elephant. They’ll set the resulting shaggy-haired “mammophants” loose on the tundra, where, in theory, the creatures’ trampling and pooping and rooting around will eventually help the landscape return to its former state, before it was denuded of grass cover after the Pleistocene period. This is—again, in theory—important because said grass cover could soak up a tremendous amount of the excess carbon dioxide that human activity has released into the atmosphere. Colossal is resurrecting the woolly mammoth to fight climate change.

Deep breath. What?

Austin native and Baylor University alum Lamm seemed uncharacteristically earnest as he unspooled all of this over a sparkling water. Now 39 and splitting his time between Dallas and Austin, he has been focused on seemingly more and more fantastical work every time we’ve met over the past half-dozen years. It’s sometimes tricky to tell where the hype ends and the real innovation begins, even though he’s clearly brimming with restless creativity. After building and selling an e-learning software outfit that he launched in his early twenties, he started Chaotic Moon, a creative technology studio that invented tech novelties—biometric tattoos, virtual-reality games—for corporate clients. After selling that company in 2015, he founded one that made customer-service chatbots for mass brands such as Wingstop and Pizza Hut. And then came Hypergiant, where his work with heavy industry and government unlocked an interest in climate change. Now, with Colossal, he’d found perhaps the perfect vehicle for realizing his world-changing ambitions and creating a spectacle.

The de-extinction of woolly mammoths wasn’t exactly Lamm’s idea, but that of Harvard geneticist George Church, a science-world celebrity whom the author Ben Mezrich has referred to as the Einstein of our times. Church was one of a handful of scientists who developed the Nobel Prize–winning CRISPR gene-editing technology that revolutionized biomedical research over the past decade. A white-bearded 67-year-old who bears a passing resemblance to Charles Darwin and whose narcolepsy leads him to nod off at odd times, Church has long talked about the possibility of bringing back the woolly mammoth—for all the reasons Lamm cited. Church is the person who has identified the relevant strains of mammoth DNA and could splice them with an elephant’s.

wooly mammoth Ben Lamm Colossal
Ben Lamm and George ChurchCourtesy of Colossal

After Lamm read an article about Church a little more than two years ago, he called the legend to propose collaborating on the kind of venture-capital-backed start-up that would have the resources to push the mammoth dream into reality. “Based on the technology available and what George is capable of, we would have mammoths already today if we had had the right amount of funding and focus on it over the past five years,” Lamm told me. He hopes the first mammoths since around 2000 BC will walk the earth in as few as four to six years, somewhere in Alaska, northern Canada, or Siberia.

Colossal will be based in Dallas (where the hardware will be built), Austin (where the software will be built), and Boston (where Church has his Harvard lab). The nascent team set out to raise $3 to $5 million to get started, Lamm said, but the intense interest from investors led it instead to haul in $15 million, from venture capital and private equity firms (famous ones, such as Silicon Valley’s Draper Associates, whose portfolio includes Tesla, Coinbase, and Twitch) as well as from some individual investors, including self-improvement guru Tony Robbins. In addition to a murderer’s row of prominent PhDs in various biomedical and engineering specialties, the company’s advisers include X Prize creator Peter Diamandis, 23andMe cofounder Linda Avey, and the Austin-based video-game entrepreneur and private astronaut Richard Garriott (the father of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, he once flew on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station), who these days is president of the Explorer’s Club. It’s a colorful crew.

As Lamm sees it, another big reason to make a new mammoth is to be at the forefront of a biotech revolution that author Walter Isaacson, in his biography of CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, characterizes as the next great gold rush and technological sea change, akin to the digital revolution of the past few decades. “It’s very similar to the moon landing,” Lamm said. “A bunch of really interesting, innovative technologies came out of that world”—from proving the viability of the integrated circuit to solar panels to cordless devices. Lamm predicts his new company will bring forth advances in genomic modeling software, for instance, which could have applications in agriculture, where large producers are keenly interested in developing animals for specific purposes. He also foresees progress in “multiplex” gene editing, which is an emerging technique that allows researchers to “do a lot of different edits at once, and do that in a way that has minimal undesired outcomes.”

Church added in a statement, “Technologies discovered in pursuit of this grand vision—a living, walking proxy of a woolly mammoth—could create very significant opportunities in conservation and beyond, not least of which include inspiring public interest in STEM, prompting timely discussions in bioethics, and raising awareness of the vital importance of biodiversity.”

Speaking of ethical considerations, it’s not hard to imagine a few that could arise from de-extinction of a species. Set aside the comparisons to Jurassic Park that instantly come to mind and consider the more immediate quandaries. For one thing, how should the hybrid embryo be carried to term? Ethicists have balked at the idea of gestating a mammophant embryo in an endangered Asian elephant womb because it could harm the elephant. But creating an artificial womb that can lab-incubate a mammoth embryo for the required 18 to 22 months is hardly settled science. (Church’s lab has worked on the problem.) Lamm suggests Colossal will likely develop its hybrid embryos in the Boston lab and then work with a captive breeding program at a zoo to implant and gestate the first batch in African elephants.

The questions only get trickier once the animals are born. A 2019 United Nations report made the dire prediction that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” Preserving them clearly benefits the planet’s biodiversity, but does bringing back those long gone? Do we know, for instance, that a lab-created woolly mammophant would behave just as its ancient ancestors did on the tundra? Or would we be opening a Pandora’s box? Perhaps it wouldn’t root around in the soil quite as expected and would actually prove harmful to the ecosystem. Or imagine some other resurrected creature, a predator rather than an ambling herbivore: would communities living in close proximity to it be concerned—like many in the West were when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the nineties—even if there were clear positive implications for the planet’s health? And would the knowledge that we could bring species back from the dead have a net negative impact on the planet by deprioritizing conservation efforts?

The list of practical and seemingly absurd ethical concerns could go on for days. One needn’t look far to find technology rushed into the world on the back of venture capital investing whose goal is to lock up a large market before anyone else gets there—only to unleash devastating unforeseen effects. To take perhaps the most obvious recent example, Facebook was supposed to have helped unite the world, but nobody stopped to take seriously that it could be turned into the most polarizing propaganda machine ever.

“That’s quite a fast-forward, but I get where you’re going,” said Lamm, when I posed the Facebook example. “Look, we don’t have every answer today. And that’s why I think for us, we’re focused on …” He went on to talk about the science, which I later realized might not have been him just changing the subject. His counterpart, Church, is famous for taking a somewhat permissive approach toward ethically tricky scientific subjects—not because he’s cavalier about the implications but because he sees a moral imperative to pursue good outcomes and sees doing nothing as equally or more risky. That is, if unleashing a promising technology also comes with the risk of setting the world on a slippery slope toward disastrous consequences, a scientist’s decision not to pursue the technology could be prudent—or it could be negligent because it ignores the possible benefits. What’s more, doing nothing could make room for a less scrupulous actor to ultimately hasten the possible bad effects. In this view, if something is possible, the responsible thing might be to pursue it—responsibly.

“There are a lot of different movies out there that portray all kinds of different dystopian futures,” said Lamm, laying down the bottom line. “And they’re just that—they’re movies, they’re fiction. What we’re doing is real. What we’re doing can actually occur. And there’s a purpose behind this—the whole concept of thoughtful, disruptive conservation.” Even if the mammophants fail to have a significant effect on slowing the steady rise in global temperatures, Lamm hopes that the woollier elephants can stave off Asian elephants’ extinction should the climate in their original habitat become too hostile.

“We’ve done a really good job of bringing together some of the top scientists, conservationists, and ethicists as advisers, and that helps give us a north star in terms of being very transparent about it along the way,” he said. “We didn’t go raise a bunch of money, do this in a lab, and then say, ‘Here’s the first mammoth.’ We want to be transparent.”

As if on cue, a young man wandered over from another table on the Soho House patio, and Lamm introduced him as Marshall Sandman, the managing partner of a Los Angeles–based venture capital firm called Animal Capital that is one of Colossal’s investors. The fund, which Sandman started with a trio of early TikTok influencers who have expanded into start-up investing, bills itself as “the first venture firm with access to 100M+ engaged consumers across the world”—meaning the audience commanded by its principals. Colossal, Lamm explained, would be able to leverage that audience in its efforts to broadcast the mammoth work. “I want Cambridge scientists excited about this, I want folks in L.A., I want moms in Iowa,” he said. “I want everyone to get excited about this.”  

I told him he seemed more heartfelt now, more grounded, than at any previous time we’d met, even though his work was exponentially weirder. Had Ben Lamm finally found his purpose? “I think the answer is yes,” he said. “I was always really in love with the entrepreneurial journey—building a great brand, hiring smart people. But I don’t think I’d ever married that with purpose before. I thought building the business was the purpose. Deliver a great return to your investors and then do it again. But I don’t think I’ve ever been in love with exactly what we’ve done.”

We talked some more—about saving the northern white rhino, about Dallas’s surging biotech industry, about inspiring children to fight climate change or more broadly to pursue STEM careers. We talked about his knowing how crazy this all sounds, but that here we were facing a crisis that requires the craziest kind of thinking.

And he talked about stuffing this particular genie back in the bottle should everything go awry. “What’s great about mammoths, from a rewilding perspective,” he said, “is they’re easy to walk back. Genetically modified mosquitoes, that’s a hard problem to walk back. But mammoths, they’re large, and it’s not like we’re releasing hundreds of thousands of them on day one without monitoring.” It’ll be more like a dozen at first. “We have the modeling, we have the feasibility studies. But we also have some optionality in terms of how we want to walk it back if we ever needed to.”

Which is only sort of a comforting thought. As Church might point out, once something is possible, it’s likely going to be done. Whether it’s by Ben Lamm and George Church and their team of scientific and financial superheroes is the only real question.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

close