Within the next decade, we could see a new biodiversity economy emerge, where value is based on contribution to protecting the planet.

At SXSW 2024, Austin entrepreneur Ben Lamm, founder and CEO of synthetic biology tech company Colossal Biosciences spoke on this topic at a fireside chat entitled How the science of de-extinction is helping to save species. “The biodiversity economy will be here in the next ten years, where people can put a value on protecting animals [..] People will see the ecological impact if we protect these animals and I think that’s quantifiable.”

The session's title refers to a landmark project by Colossal Biosciences, the company Lamm founded with geneticist George Church. A “de-extinction” moonshot aims to engineer hybrid species that share the traits of extinct and endangered animals, including woolly mammoths.

Using the word de-extinction with its air of Jurassic Park is a smart way to bring attention to biodiversity issues and get kids excited about science, but there are deeper conservation goals in play. Keystone species like mammoths are important contributors to a healthy ecosystem but can also assist with carbon capture and climate regulation. Rewilding Arctic habitats with mammoths will lower ground temperatures, maintain permafrost and support grasslands that are better able to sequester carbon said Lamm.

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Ben Lamm and George Church, founders of Colossal Biosciences. Image courtesy Colossal Biosciences.

The goal is to breed a small herd of around 100 mammoth-like creatures, engineered to withstand harsh climates and then rewild them back to former habitats, most likely starting in Alaska around 2028. But we could see another de-extincted animal even sooner with plans afoot for other species, including wolves, beavers and the Tasmanian devil. Beavers alone could offer a more effective solution than direct carbon capture according to Lamm, who commented, “Conservation works, it just doesn’t work as fast as we need it to. I think it's pretty important for us to have a de-extinction tool kit and not need rather than not having a de-extinction tool kit and absolutely need it.”

Colossal is making scientific progress, with a notable breakthrough announced just prior to SXSW. Their researchers have developed elephant stem cells which can be developed into any tissue, something that was previously believed impossible. The discovery will not only support elephant conservation, but it could also have implications for human health. Elephants rarely develop cancer thanks to a protein dubbed T53, so studying their biology could hold valuable insights for cancer resistance.

So while the de-extinction goal may still be some way off, the project is already delivering benefits then. And if we can reengineer animals, what else might be possible?

For more on conservation and preservation, see trend #91 Ultrapreservation in The Future 100 2024.

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