Colossal Biosciences’ $7.5 Million Investment: Academic Ancient DNA Research


Ancient DNA like that found in extinct species is incredibly valuable to our understanding of the past and present, and can uncover exceptional lost information like the ways that species have evolved, adapted, or perished over time. 

Colossal Biosciences, known for its ambitious approaches to conservation like gene editing and de-extinction, has made a variety of advancements in ancient DNA research in its quest to revive long-gone species like the dodo, Tasmanian tiger, and woolly mammoth, and is investing $7.5 million in academic research to uncover more about this relatively unexplored scientific field.

“Ancient DNA is the most complicated DNA on the planet. I think about it as if we are trying to put together a puzzle, but we don’t know exactly what the puzzle looks like or how many pieces are missing. When breakthrough research occurs, it can cascade to improve genomics research for everyone on the planet while really stress-testing some of the [artificial intelligence] tools that Colossal is building,” said Ben Lamm, Colossal co-founder and CEO. “We want to help the researchers who are chasing breakthrough discoveries because we believe that attempting to do breakthrough science is what really drives true step function scientific change.”

Beth Shapiro, Ph.D., the company’s chief science officer and ancient DNA expert, will oversee Colossal Biosciences’ ancient DNA research and the distribution of this funding, which will provide universities around the globe with the opportunity to contribute to crucial scientific discoveries by studying a diverse set of long-gone species. This investment will also include the deployment of an online database where researchers can upload their findings and collaborate on projects. 

Colossal Biosciences expects this research will inform its conservation and de-extinction projects, which require pioneering advancements in fronts like comparative genomics, gene editing, and DNA synthesis in order to succeed. In a field as understudied as ancient DNA, the company, which is already occupied with a variety of ambitious campaigns, cannot take on these findings alone.

“We started out focused on species that are closely related to our core species, like the Columbian mammoth,” Lamm told Syfy Wire. “Instead of us trying to solve everything, why don’t we go to the top researchers of the world, fund their massively underfunded research, let us glean from those scientific papers and research that can be shared with the entire world. And then we can leverage that for some of our own research.”

A range of species, including the blue antelope, long-horned bison, Columbian mammoth, dire wolves, giant sloths, great auks, Irish elk, cave hyenas, moas, saber-toothed cats, woolly rhinoceroses, mastodons, tooth-billed pigeons, American cheetahs, giant short-faced bears, and Steller’s sea cows, will all be studied as part of this investment, each with a potential to provide significant insights into modern conservation, like drivers of extinction and diversity conferring genes and traits.

University of California, Santa Cruz Paleogenomics Lab

The UCSC’s Paleogenomics Lab is a world-leading ancient DNA research facility co-founded by Colossal’s very own Shapiro. Founded in 2012, this lab has become well known for pioneering approaches to extracting minute amounts of living DNA from ancient specimens.

The lab has a wide degree of focus, from determining the impacts of Pleistocene-era weather events to developing tools for DNA analysis and forensic sciences, and exploring conservation genomics

Recently, the Paleogenomics Lab conducted a mitogenomic analysis of Pleistocene-era jaguar fossils to determine the existence of a now-extinct subspecies of the American jaguar. While the Pleistocene-era jaguar was long believed to be a distinct subspecies given its larger size, this analysis determined that ancient specimens share mitochondrial DNA with their modern counterpart, suggesting that they’re the same species. 

Colossal has pledged a $500,000 donation to the UCSC Genomics Institute to support the Paleogenomics Lab. This donation will begin assisting student research this summer and allow the lab to continue to uncover the hidden truths of the past.

“We are grateful to Colossal for its donation in support of paleogenomics research at the Genomics Institute, UC Santa Cruz. The gift from Colossal enables our talented researchers and students to pursue discovery-based science that has real-world impact. This research partnership between academia and industry illustrates how goals can be mutually aligned and both can work together to realize the ultimate potential of discovery,” said Lauren Linton, executive director of the UCSC Genomics Institute.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks Adopt a Mammoth Program

Colossal Biosciences has been a longtime supporter of the UAF’s Adopt a Mammoth Program, which aims to radiocarbon-date 1,500 of the university’s woolly mammoth fossils with the help of local Alaskan school districts. 

“This initiative could not be more core to Colossal’s mission: combining cutting-edge de-extinction research with children’s education,” Lamm said in a press release. “The project is allowing us to contribute to the growth and understanding of mammoth research more broadly. Not nearly enough research has been completed on American woolly mammoths. This is not only a great benefit for our youth, but for the entire science community.”

The program seeks to find the youngest mammoth (10,000 years old or younger) to potentially extend the species extinction date and duration for which it coexisted with humans. Colossal Biosciences has already donated to the Adopt a Mammoth Program to ensure that 55 mammoth fossils were donated to schools throughout Alaska, providing students with hands-on experience with fossils. With this new funding, Colossal will extend its partnership with the Adopt a Mammoth Program.

“Colossal is actively advancing our research of mammoth fossils here in Alaska by supporting our ability to radiocarbon date and examine ancient DNA in specimens housed here at the world class University of Alaska Museum of the North. Colossal’s investment into our research is adding data and tremendous value to these mammoth fossil treasures. It’s such an exciting time for Colossal,” said Matthew Wooler, director of the Adopt a Mammoth Program.

University of Potsdam, Germany Institute for Biochemistry and Biology

Potsdam professor for evolutionary adaptive genomics, Michael Hofreiter, Ph.D., is an ancient DNA expert focused on climate change-driven genetic adaptations. His work spans a variety of extinct species, including the blue antelope, a species once widespread throughout South Africa that went extinct around the 1800s for unknown reasons — until now. 

Recently, Hofreiter and the University of Potsdam were able to determine through a genomic analysis that the blue antelope was unable to withstand the colonization of South Africa as the species had a naturally small population size.

While the blue antelope remains a victim of colonialism like the dodo bird and countless others, Colossal Biosciences has partnered with the University of Potsdam and Hofreiter to identify the genetic source of the antelope’s iconic blue-gray coat and fund future studies into other extinct species.

“As part of Colossal’s ongoing focus on ancient DNA, genotype to phenotype relationships, and ecosystem restoration, we were honored to collaborate on the groundbreaking work of Professor Hofreiter and his team,” said Lamm. “The research objectives for the project allowed our teams to work together applying some of the latest Colossal ancient DNA and comparative genomic algorithms to learn what truly made the blue antelope the unique species it was.”

A Colossal Investment in Ancient DNA Academia

Despite the innumerable insights that ancient DNA can provide, its research remains heavily underfunded and underdeveloped. At a time when human activity leaves 1 million species at risk of extinction, Colossal is ensuring that we learn from the past by providing a crucial investment into ancient DNA. 

“By studying ancient DNA we can learn how organisms adapt to climate change, how they reshuffle and reorganize as habitats shift, and how to create resilient ecosystems in the future,” said Shapiro. “The past can be thought of as a completed evolutionary experiment that can inform how we decide to manage ecosystems today and into the future. We believe that to support a biodiverse future, we must facilitate ancient DNA research across the world. Ancient DNA is the world’s discovery sandbox and it holds millions of yet-to-be-discovered secrets.”