Dr. George Church is a real-life Dr. Frankenstein. The inventor of CRISPR and one of the minds behind the Human Genome Project is no longer content just reading and editing DNA—now he wants to make new life. In Ben Mezrich’s latest book, Wooly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures, Church and his Harvard lab try to do the impossible, and clone an extinct Woolly mammoth back into existence.
Mezrich, author of the books that would become the feature films 21 and The Social Network, seems to have graduated from college to a bioengineering PhD with his latest work, which is chock-full of scientific explanation detailing every aspect of the Church lab’s efforts to rewrite the DNA of an elephant to look like a wooly mammoth. But Mezrich is even more interested in telling the stories of the people trying to make the mammoth a reality, dramatizing the lives of Church, his wife, Harvard Professor Dr. Ting Wu, their fellow scientists, researchers working for a competing cloning lab in Korea, and the conservationists at the Siberian preserve where the mammoths will finally reside. While at times his predictions feel too good to be true, Mezrich’s prose rarely fails to engage.
Gizmodo sat down with Mezrich to talk about a few of the themes present in his book, as well as the future of de-extinction and scientific breakthroughs in general. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of the interview.
Gizmodo: What brought you to extinct species revival in particular?
Mezrich: I’ve been interested in mammoths since I was a kid, basically, and I’ve always been a fan of Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park, so it’s always been on my mind to tell a story like that. Then a couple years ago, I started hearing about Dr. George Church and the Mammoth Revival project, and I decided I just needed to tell this story. So I basically reached out to him blindly. He let me embed myself in his lab, so I spent a while just living there seeing what was going on, and just getting really into it.
Gizmodo: An early chapter of the book opens four years in the future, when humans have succeeded in bringing mammoths back to life. What makes you think the project will succeed so soon?
Mezrich: Even at this moment, right now, there are three prehistoric woolly mammoth [genomes] alive, living in elephant cells, so we’re on the verge of it. I was talking to George [the previous night]. Even though he doesn’t put a date on it, I put the four year date, but he sees that as totally possible. The slowest part of the process right now is the gestation period of an elephant. Whether we’ll have a woolly mammoth in three years or just be very close in three years, I don’t know, but a lot depends on the money and on the elephant. The initiative is how they work on it, but it is feasible.
Gizmodo: Let’s talk about the money. That’s a huge motivating factor behind the project, but it seems like the wealthy are the ones funding scientific efforts a lot of the time (Editor’s Note: The Church Lab’s Genome Sequencing project is funded mainly by private computing and biotechnology companies). Is this a good thing? How do you feel about science funded on the whims of oligarchs?
Mezrich: Well it’s interesting, you look at this marriage between incredibly wealthy people and science, and in some ways it’s a very good thing. You know, in some ways it pushes science forward. You’re not gonna see (and I wish you would) Donald Trump pouring money into the woolly mammoth revival project, you’re not seeing the government doing these things. [Scientists] do often have to turn to outside sources, and if someone like Peter Thiel wants to live forever, he needs to fund the things in George Church’s lab. So whatever his personal goal, it’s good for everybody. I look at it as a positive thing, I think big money has always influenced outside-the-box science, look at what Elon Musk does or what’s going on at Amazon, Facebook or Google. It’s very very wealthy people throwing money at crazy ideas, and hopefully we all benefit from it. Peter Thiel put in $100,000, which doesn’t sound like much, but you need money to come from outside sources if it’s not coming from academia or the government.
Gizmodo: This book and The Accidental Billionaires both had the protagonists receive additional funding from Peter Thiel. How do you feel about his involvement in particular in such immediately relevant work?
Mezrich: Yeah, I’ve written about him twice. (Editor’s Note: Mezrich also covered Peter Thiel in his book Accidental Billionaires) In this case the way George tells the story, he basically ran into Peter Thiel, and told him about a couple of projects. Thiel said tell me your craziest projects, and he listed a couple of them, and [Thiel] said, ‘the woolly mammoth, that’s the one I want to do.’
Gizmodo: Speaking of other projects, is Church working on anything half as crazy as a mammoth?
Mezrich: Yeah, absolutely, Church and his lab [are] doing the anti-malaria mosquitos, working with the Gates foundation, they’re building domes over villages in Africa and releasing mosquitoes that can’t carry malaria, to test them out. Also, his student Ken Esfeld at MIT is working on transgenic mice to beat lyme disease. The goal is to release 100,000 genetically engineered mice that can’t carry Lyme disease onto the island of Nantucket, which is kind of a wild story. In his lab, they’re also working on the pigs with human-compatible livers. They’ve a couple of pig embryos with livers that can be used in humans. You’re looking at the future of transplantation, which is incredible. They’re working on projects to extend lifespans… but the mammoth project and the ones with the transgenic species are the craziest.
Gizmodo: Do you think meddling with ecosystems and reviving lost species could have negative effects on living ones?
Mezrich: You have to be very ethical and responsible because you’re working with technology that is very powerful. The same technology that allows you to create a woolly mammoth or an extinct species allows you to eliminate a species if you want. You could eliminate mosquitos (Editor’s Note: Scientists are discussing the possibility of doing this with a controversial and speculative technology called gene drive), but that brings up enormous issues in ecology. I think bringing back an extinct species like the mammoth is generally a good thing, I think that the people who don’t want Church to do that are usually thinking what does it mean for the Asian elephant population, which is endangered. But it’s not a zero sum game—we’re not giving up on these endangered species . We now have the technology to bring back a species we mostly ate out of existence. It’s like a karmic righting of a wrong, and there’s been a lot of talk about the sixth extinction, species are going extinct all over the place, but the fact that we can bring one back is a huge moment, I think, in human history and our ability fix the things we were breaking. We have to live with our environment, but we also have to figure out ways to make it better, and if bringing back a woolly mammoth to help the environment is something we can do, it’s something we should do.
Gizmodo: Church isn’t the only one working to clone a mammoth. There’s also Hwang Woo-suk’s Korean dog-cloning lab, Soaam Technologies. Can you talk about how you got involved with them?
Mezrich: This is a wild story—this is the story of a disgraced scientist. He was the one who claimed to clone human cells, but it turns out he had been forcing his students to donate their eggs, and secondly that his clone cells are fraudulent, so he’s trying to resurrect his reputation by being the first to clone a mammoth. So, he has supposedly got incredibly preserved frozen mammoths out of the ice [in the Arctic] in conjunction with some Russians, and is going to use those cells to clone [the mammoth]. Church doesn’t believe that is something that’s going to work. Those materials have been in the ice too long and bombarded by radiation, there’s no reason that DNA should be clonable anymore. They’ve bought up tracts of land in Alberta, Canada, and the people think they want to build their own Jurassic Park up there... It’s a very strange company, and it sounds to me what they’re chasing is impossible, but Church says nothing is impossible, so who knows?
Gizmodo: The book makes mammoth cloning sounds like an arms race, but Sooam technologies only show up near the end of the book, was that on purpose?
Mezrich: I think it is. Science is always an arms race, and when you get into bringing back the mammoth, I think Church’s team is leading, but they’re not the only ones trying to do it.
Gizmodo: After the first wooly mammoths are born, the plan is for them to go to Siberia...
Mezrich: ...This is the cool is the cool part of the story. Yeah, the tundra has a permafrost that’s like a ticking time bomb that if it went off would be worse than if we burned all the forests on Earth three times, and this permafrost is always getting close to melting (Editor’s Note: Mezrich is talking about the potential for a catastrophic methane release from melting Arctic permafrost). These scientists, the Zimoffs, have been running this experiment since the 80s where they rope off a part of the tundra and repopulate it with Pleistocene type herbivores. They’ve put bison in, reindeer reindeer, horses, a WWII-era tank that they drive to mimic a mammoth, knocking down trees. And they’ve discovered they can lower the temperature by as much as fifteen degrees, which is an incredible thought (Editor’s Note: This is a speculative idea that Mezrich describes in more detail in the book, in which Pleistocene herbivores might help transition forests and shrub lands into grasslands, which absorb less heat.) The idea is to repopulate the area with mammoths. Church’s goal is 80,000 mammoths, and [he hopes that] you could lower the temperature of the permafrost for generations.
Gizmodo: This is your third book to be turned into a movie, (after Bringing Down the House was adapted into 21 and Accidental Billionaires into The Social Network) so you’ve gotta know something about Hollywood by now. Who should play Church in the movie?
Mezrich: I love Tom Hanks for that character, Jeff Bridges is my other first choice. Hanks already grew that big beard in Castaway and Jeff Bridges has that great beard, so Hanks or Bridges.