The CIA wants to bring woolly mammoths back from extinction

Illustration of two woolly mammoths fighting during an ice age.
Woolly mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years, but now the CIA is investing in a biotech firm that wants to bring them back. (Image credit: Dottedhippo via Getty Images)

The CIA is funding research into resurrecting extinct animals — including the woolly mammoth and tiger-like thylacine — according to news reports.

Via a venture capital investment firm called In-Q-Tel, which the CIA funds, the American intelligence agency has pledged money to the Texas-based tech company Colossal Biosciences. According to Colossal's website, the company's goal is to "see the woolly mammoth thunder upon the tundra once again" through the use of genetic engineering — that is, using technology to edit an organism's DNA.

Colossal has also stated an interest in resurrecting the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger — a wolf-like marsupial that went extinct in the 1930s — as well as the extinct dodo bird.

For their part, the CIA is less interested in thundering mammoths and roaring thylacines than it is in the underlying genetic engineering technology that Colossal intends to develop, according to an In-Q-Tel blog post.

"Strategically, it's less about the mammoths and more about the capability," In-Q-Tel's senior officials wrote.

De-extinction may sound like science fiction — and, to an extent, it is. There is no way to bring back the woolly mammoth as it was ten thousand  years ago; however, by using DNA editing tools, scientists can insert cold-resistant characteristics into the DNA sequences of modern elephants, making them genetically similar to woolly mammoths. The resulting creature wouldn't be a mammoth, per se; rather, it would be a proxy animal that's more like an elephant with mammoth-like characteristics.

The foundation of this process is a gene editing method called CRISPR — genetic "scissors" that scientists can use to cut, paste and replace specific gene sequences into an organism's DNA. (Several of the researchers behind CRISPR won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry).

According to the In-Q-Tel blog post, investing in this project will help the U.S. government to "set the ethical, as well as the technological, standards" for genetic engineering technology, and keep the U.S. a step ahead of competing nations that may also be interested in reading, writing and altering genetic code.

Not everyone is so optimistic about using genetic engineering tools to revive extinct animals. Critics have warned that, even if a company is able to engineer a healthy proxy mammoth, the mammoth's natural habitat no longer exists — and, even if it did, genetic code cannot teach an animal how to thrive in an unfamiliar ecosystem, according to Gizmodo. Some scientists also argue that money spent on de-extinction projects could go much further if applied to the conservation of living animals.

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.