AS A RAPIDLY ADVANCING climate emergency turns the planet ever hotter, the Dallas-based biotechnology company Colossal Biosciences has a vision: “To see the Woolly Mammoth thunder upon the tundra once again.” Founders George Church and Ben Lamm have already racked up an impressive list of high-profile funders and investors, including Peter Thiel, Tony Robbins, Paris Hilton, Winklevoss Capital — and, according to the public portfolio its venture capital arm released this month, the CIA.
Colossal says it hopes to use advanced genetic sequencing to resurrect two extinct mammals — not just the giant, ice age mammoth, but also a mid-sized marsupial known as the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, that died out less than a century ago. On its website, the company vows: “Combining the science of genetics with the business of discovery, we endeavor to jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat.”
In-Q-Tel, its new investor, is registered as a nonprofit venture capital firm funded by the CIA. On its surface, the group funds technology startups with the potential to safeguard national security. In addition to its long-standing pursuit of intelligence and weapons technologies, the CIA outfit has lately displayed an increased interest in biotechnology and particularly DNA sequencing.
“Why the interest in a company like Colossal, which was founded with a mission to “de-extinct” the wooly mammoth and other species?” reads an In-Q-Tel blog post published on September 22. “Strategically, it’s less about the mammoths and more about the capability.”
“Biotechnology and the broader bioeconomy are critical for humanity to further develop. It is important for all facets of our government to develop them and have an understanding of what is possible,” Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm wrote in an email to The Intercept. (A spokesperson for Lamm stressed that while Thiel provided Church with $100,000 in funding to launch the woolly mammoth project that became Colossal, he is not a stakeholder like Robbins, Hilton, Winklevoss Capital, and In-Q-Tel.)
Colossal uses CRISPR gene editing, a method of genetic engineering based on a naturally occurring type of DNA sequence. CRISPR sequences present on their own in some bacterial cells and act as an immune defense system, allowing the cell to detect and excise viral material that tries to invade. The eponymous gene editing technique was developed to function the same way, allowing users to snip unwanted genes and program a more ideal version of the genetic code.
“CRISPR is the use of genetic scissors,” Robert Klitzman, a bioethicist at Columbia University and a prominent voice of caution on genetic engineering, told The Intercept. “You’re going into DNA, which is a 3-billion-molecule-long chain, and clipping some of it out and replacing it. You can clip out bad mutations and put in good genes, but these editing scissors can also take out too much.”
The embrace of this technology, according to In-Q-Tel’s blog post, will help allow U.S. government agencies to read, write, and edit genetic material, and, importantly, to steer global biological phenomena that impact “nation-to-nation competition” while enabling the United States “to help set the ethical, as well as the technological, standards” for its use.
In-Q-Tel did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.