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Elephant Genetic Codes to be Sequenced, Preserved

Asian elephant

Asian elephant (Aparajita Datta, Wikimedia Commons.

1 Oct. 2021. A biotechnology company using gene editing to preserve animal species is sequencing the genomes of three elephant varieties to help prevent their extinction. Colossal, in Boston, is partnering with the Vertebrate Genomes Project at Rockefeller University in New York to sequence the genomes of the Asian, African savannah, and African forest elephants, all considered endangered species.

Colossal, founded by Harvard University geneticist and serial entrepreneur George Church and technology serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm, began operations last month, and announced plans to revive the long-extinct wooly mammoth. The company says it uses Crispr — clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — a genome editing technique derived from bacterial defense systems, to recreate extinct species, beginning with the wooly mammoth. Colossal says the project will start by editing the Asian elephant genome, shared almost entirely (99.6%) with the wooly mammoth.

The Asian elephant is considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN, along with the African savannah elephant, while the African forest elephant is rated as critically endangered. Colossal says it will fund genomic sequencing of the three species by the Vertebrate Genomes Project that plans to produce reference genomes for all living vertebrates, numbering more than 70,000. Sequencing by the Vertebrate Genomes Project produces complete and error-free analysis, with the feasibility of the group’s process described in a paper published in the journal Nature in April 2021.

135 species sequenced so far

Vertebrate Genomes Project says it so far sequenced the genomes of 135 species, with the data stored in public databases. Sequencing data from the three elephant species will also be made publicly available.

“By sequencing these three elephant species,” says Colossal CEO Lamm in a company statement released through BusinessWire, “we will genetically preserve the entire order. Together we can safeguard the genetic lineage of elephants to protect biodiversity and restore healthy ecosystems ….”

“There is not enough focus on genomic data in conservation efforts, including with high-quality reference genomes,” notes Vertebrate Genomes Project chair Erich Jarvis, neuroscience and genetics professor at Rockefeller University. “It is critical that we act with urgency as we aim to genetically preserve and protect endangered species, before we lose them forever.”

The need to preserve endangered species took on added urgency this week, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced the ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species became extinct. The ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest woodpecker variety in the U.S., last seen in northeast Louisiana in 1944. The other now-extinct species include several varieties of birds and mussels, and one type of bat. Eleven of the 23 species were found in Hawai’i and Guam.

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