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Rewriting Life

Peter Thiel Is Funding the Effort to Bring Woolly Mammoths Back to Life

It’s a book. It’s a major motion picture. But where’s the science?

Somewhere between financing Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker and backing Donald Trump’s campaign for president, iconoclast investor Peter Thiel found time to invest $100,000 in an effort to resurrect the woolly mammoth.

That’s according to a new book by Ben Mezrich, Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures, which chronicles efforts by Harvard University genomics expert George Church to genetically modify elephant cells with DNA retrieved from frozen mammoths.

Thiel’s donation, made sometime around 2015, is one of the previously unreported twists recounted by Mezrich, whose book tells how Church and his students became involved with a long-shot plan to re-create mammoths and release herds of them into the Siberian tundra as part of an elaborate effort to grapple with climate change.

“Just remember. It’s only science fiction until we remove the fiction. Then it becomes real,” Mezrich has one scientist saying in the book.

The Harvard mammoth plan got in motion in 2012 during a gathering of “de-extinction” experts in Washington, D.C. Since then, it’s generated a huge amount of media buzz, but so far no scientific publications—and no mammoth, either.

When I took to Twitter last week to poke fun at the lumbering project—now also the subject of a planned Hollywood movie—one of its backers, Stewart Brand, dared me to put “money on the table” and bet him whether it would succeed.

Brand, described in Mezrich’s book as an “amiable praying mantis,” is the entrepreneur and promoter largely behind recent interest in de-extinction technology. His organization, Revive & Restore, is trying to bring back the passenger pigeon and save the endangered black-footed ferret.

Scientists crowd around the remains of a woolly mammoth. The genomes of several of the extinct mammals have been sequenced.

The mammoth idea, he says, may be the least realistic of these plans, but it’s the one that gets people most excited. “People are having their imaginations grabbed and thrown over the horizon,” he says.

But no one should imagine that de-extinction science—or any type of conservation—is particularly well funded. “The assumption is there must be some billionaire putting money into it,” he says. “The reality is that no big money is going into it. It’s our own money, except for Thiel.”

Bestseller

Mezrich is the best-selling author of Bringing Down the House, based on the exploits of MIT’s blackjack team, and The Accidental Billionaires, about the founding of Facebook, later turned into the movie The Social Network.

In his new book, Church comes off as a mad scientist with a heart of gold, trying to re-create the mammoth and hand it over to a Russian father-and-son team who think herds of them will help restore the Siberian tundra to its prehistoric state and insulate the permafrost, preventing it from melting and releasing a disastrous quantity of global-warming gases.

If science allows it, what extinct species should we bring back first?

Go!

The research described in Woolly is basically a real-life version of Jurassic Park. But instead of cloning a dinosaur from DNA trapped in amber, Church’s lab has set about using gene editing to tweak the DNA of elephant cells (obtained from the Ringling Brothers circus, Mezrich reports) so it’s more like that of a mammoth. Genes involved in hemoglobin, hair, and subcutaneous fat are just a few that will have to be altered.

At one point, Mezrich describes red pachyderm hair sprouting from the side of an immunocompromised mouse where some genetically altered elephant cells were grafted. And that’s about as far as the science has gotten, he reports. Eventually, though, if enough mammoth DNA were added to an elephant cell, scientists could try to use it to clone a part-mammoth into existence.

A spokesman for Thiel didn’t respond to efforts to confirm he’s the mammoth funder. But Church, whom I ran into this week giving his stump scientific lecture (which is mammoth free, by the way) to a group of Chinese students at MIT, confirmed that it’s true.

Church says he was having breakfast with Thiel when the multibillionaire, who made a fortune backing Facebook, told him he wanted to fund the “craziest thing” he was doing. Church offered three choices: an anti-aging scheme involving gene therapy, a project using real human neurons to create artificial intelligence, and the mammoth.

"I choose the mammoth," Thiel said.

Church says he was surprised at the decision, given Thiel’s software fortune and his widely advertised interest in never dying.

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A motion picture

Mezrich’s book comes out July 7, but even before he finished it, the movie rights were sold to Fox, and the story is being made into a reality-based thriller by director Oscar Sharp, with a budget that Church has heard is around $80 million (in other words, about 800 times the budget of the actual mammoth project).

According to Brand and a person in the film industry, Sharp has been spending time in the Harvard lab getting to know his subjects: the gray-bearded Church and his star student Luhan Yang, who made it to Boston from backwater China, and who initially led the mammoth team.

From the sound of it, Sharp wants to portray the successes and failures of science—the big conceptual leaps, the new tools, and the dogged, detailed bench work needed to make any of it become real.

But frankly, it’s questionable how much elbow grease Church’s lab is really applying to the mammoth project. Despite the attention lavished on it by the media, the effort is a back-burner operation that’s advancing fitfully at best. I couldn’t find a single scientific paper explaining what’s been achieved.

Really, this scheme always seemed more like a manifesto than a real project—a way to say, “Here’s the kind of thing we could do, if we wanted.”

In fact, Yang now spends most of her time running a company trying to engineer pigs. Here, instead of mammoth-izing elephant cells, the idea is to humanize pig organs so they can be used in transplant medicine. And this idea is worth real money. Her xenotransplantation startup, eGenesis, raised $38 million this March.

The biggest question remaining in my mind is what actor will play the narcoleptic, 6'5" Church, who is already pretty famous and has appeared on The Colbert Report. I ran a poll on Twitter to gauge interest in a few suggestions. Of the four names I put forth, Jeff Bridges was the top choice, followed by Jennifer Lopez.

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