Why Colossal Biosciences Says It’s Racing To Rescue Endangered Baby Elephants

While the herpes virus is rarely fatal in humans, elephants face a much more dangerous foe in the microbes. Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, or EEHV, can be a fatal disease in the majestic mammals and while it negatively impacts human-managed African elephants, it’s the leading cause of death in young Asian elephants in North American human care as well as in the wild. EEHV just adds to the danger the Asian elephant faces; these animals are also at high risk because of poaching and encroachment of natural habitats by humans. Presently, there are fewer than 52,000 Asian elephants in the wild; however, these numbers are sharply falling. The clock is ticking because the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the Asian elephant as endangered. 

Have no fear, Dumbo aficionados: Genetic engineering and de-extinction innovator Colossal Biosciences is riding in to the rescue. 

Helmed by serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm and world-renowned geneticist George Church, Colossal Biosciences has been making headlines for efforts to revive extinct beasts like the woolly mammoth and the dodo. Featured on a recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning, reporter Jonathan Vigliotti marveled to Church, “I hear mammoth and dodo in the same sentence and, you know, it’s science fiction to me.”

To which Church replied, “Yeah, I mean, it is. Until it’s not.”

Now, it’s the Asian elephants’ turn to benefit from Colossal’s disruptive science.

Colossal Biosciences: ‘Calves Appear To Be Most Susceptible’

According to the American Museum of Natural History, wild Asian elephants are in peril due to loss of habitat, conflicts with humans over crops, ivory poaching, and capture for use in the tourist sector. Now, EEHV is claiming the lives of younger pachyderms.

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“Both African and Asian elephants are facing extinction due to a multitude of anthropogenic pressures including poaching for ivory, habitat fragmentation, and human-elephant conflict,” Matt James, Colossal Biosciences’ head of animal operations, told Discovery. “Additionally, we are beginning to understand the negative effects that elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus is having on elephant sustainability in the wild.

“We know that EEHV is a latent virus that the majority of elephants naturally carry and shed on occasion; however, we do not yet fully understand what allows the virus to cause clinical illness in elephants. Calves appear to be most susceptible to EEHV disease after they have been weaned, at a time when they are not protected by their mother’s antibodies. Once the virus takes hold, elephants quickly become critically ill, causing hemorrhagic disease.”

Given that mega-herbivores such as elephants play a crucial role in ecosystems, Colossal Biosciences has made elephant conservation one of its primary goals, developing a vaccine for EEHV. 

Colossal’s goal to fight this virus emerges from its commitment to advancing conservation efforts using modern technology

The company started its de-extinction projects with conservation as the overarching objective, as it believes that reintroducing long-extinct species will bring balance to their former ecosystems and give humans a fighting chance against the forces of climate change. 

“In the wild, elephants are a critical keystone species, a key player in maintaining the biodiversity and health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Disruptive conservation methods rooted in genetics complement existing preservation efforts and ensure a future for all elephants to thrive,” James told Discovery. 

James is experienced in exotic animal care, with a career that spans more than a decade. He’s one of the many leading individuals and institutions Colossal has partnered with for its conservation efforts. James leads the field conservation efforts at the company and is building animal care strategies for its de-extinction program. 

Colossal Biosciences is well placed to find a cure for the EEHV because of its current work with the Asian elephant. To revive the woolly mammoth, the company plans to splice the DNA traits of a woolly mammoth into an Asian elephant’s DNA. This will create an Asian elephant hybrid capable of surviving in subzero temperatures. Building off this existing research on Asian elephants, the company is hopeful that it will be able to create an mRNA vaccine for EEHV. 

“Colossal’s commitment to eradicating EEHV’s deadly effect on elephants will also serve to protect our future populations of woolly mammoths. This research enhances our understanding of elephant, and therefore mammoth, immune responses and will allow Colossal to arm both elephants and mammoths with traits to protect them against this deadly disease,” Colossal’s CEO Lamm told Discovery.

Colossal is using CRISPR, the same genome sequencing technology it’s using to create the woolly mammoth, to develop a vaccine for EEHV. The idea is to locate genes that make elephants susceptible to EEHV and eliminate them.

When asked whether EEHV poses a risk to humans, James replied in the negative. “Since EEHV is not a zoonotic disease, it does not directly present any threat to human health. However, EEHV directly affects the long-term viability of elephant species which are keystone species within their environments. The loss of elephants would drastically change the ecosystems in and around their range areas which would have devastating effects on the environments in which humans live.”

At present, many veterinarians and scientists are working to eliminate EEHV. The team is led by Dr. Paul Ling, a professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and member of Colossal’s Scientific Advisory Board.

The good news is, according to James, “Currently, we estimate that we are about two years from the first generation of an EEHV vaccine.”