A private company wants to resurrect a gigantic species that once roamed the Earth — and it’ll spare no expense to make its plan a reality.
A new startup says it’s prepared to spend US$15 million on the Jurassic Park–esque dream of reviving the long-dead woolly mammoth, in hopes of one day restoring it to the tundra regions that it once called home.
Those tundra regions now belong to countries like Russia and Canada, which might have something to say about releasing big hairy elephant hybrids into their respective wildernesses. Those areas are also rapidly warming due to climate change, meaning they will look different from what they were when the last mammoth died 4,000 years ago.
Nevertheless, a company called Colossal says it’s got enough private funding to potentially make its woolly dream come true through cutting-edge gene-editing techniques.
“Our teams have collected viable DNA samples, and are editing the genes that will allow this wonderful megafauna to once again thunder through the Arctic,” Colossal says on its website.
Biotech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and George Church, a renowned Harvard geneticist, announced their startup on Monday.
“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth,” Church told the Evening Standard. “Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40 Celsius, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do.”
They also want to establish a population that will interbreed and carry on without human guidance.
The co-founders aim to produce mammoth-elephant calves within the next six years, with the goal of establishing wild populations in northern Eurasia and North America in the future.
They’re framing it as a de-extinction effort that could also help the environment, especially if the mammoth hybrids can transform the tundra into fertile carbon-capturing grassland. Their method could also potentially be used to revive other extinct species in the future, including ones that died out because of humans.
Colossal’s plan is to use CRISPR, a genetic copy-and-paste tool, to combine mammoth DNA with that of its living cousin, the Asian elephant. The mammoth DNA will come from specimens recovered from the melting permafrost in Siberia, and the elephant DNA will be extracted from elephant skin cells.
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Church says he’ll create a hybrid set of DNA that includes the cold-weather traits of the mammoth. This DNA will then replace the DNA inside an Asian elephant egg, and the egg will be implanted into a female elephant to carry it to term.
If all goes well, the elephant mother would give birth to a very hairy hybrid resembling the mammoths of old.
If it doesn’t go well… well… at least they’re not planning an amusement park around it?
“I’m not making a bold prediction this is going to be easy,” Church told the New York Times. “But everything up to this point has been relatively easy. Every tissue we’ve gone after, we’ve been able to get a recipe for.”
The actual pregnancy might prove to be difficult, as Colossal expects the elephant mother to carry a hefty mammoth fetus for 18 to 22 months.
Adult woolly mammoths stood about two feet taller and weighed about two tons more than today’s Asian elephants, so the hybrid fetus might prove a challenge for its mother.
The whole project also presents a raft of ethical issues, according to several outside scientists who have commented on the proposal.
Victoria Herridge of Natural History Museum said the whole thing seems “implausible” and riddled with questions about what happens once the creature is brought to life.
“What is this creature? Is it a new species? How many do you need?” she asked in an interview with the Evening Standard. “If they succeed, what will the needs be of an intelligent social creature? And what are our obligations to it?”
Heather Bushman, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, said she’s worried about the lives that the potential hybrid calves might lead.
“You don’t have a mother for a species that — if they are anything like elephants — has extraordinarily strong mother-infant bonds that last for a very long time,” she told the New York Times. “Once there is a little mammoth or two on the ground, who is making sure that they’re being looked after?”
Church has been on the side of bleeding-edge genetic experiments before. In 2018, for instance, he supported a Chinese scientist who claimed to have made a designer baby with immunity to HIV.
“I think this is justifiable,” Church told The Associated Press at the time.
Colossal has secured roughly $15 million in private funding from various investors, including the Winklevoss twins.
But that money didn’t come easy. Church spent years trying to drum up investments, and the project didn’t take off until he piqued Lamm’s interest during a meeting in 2019.
“We had about $100,000 over the last 15 years, which is way, way less than any other project in my lab, but not through lack of enthusiasm,” Church told CNBC. “Ben came out of the blue, I think inspired at a distance from what he was reading about this very charismatic project, which was very underfunded.”
Lamm suggests the mammoth would be a proof of concept for Colossal’s technology, and that the same techniques could later be used for “thoughtful, disruptive conservation.”
Colossal is not the first group to take aim at resurrecting the mammoth through gene editing. The California-based Revive & Restore Project also wants to see the woolly mammoth brought back to life.
Scientists have toyed with the idea of resurrecting mammoths for years, in large part because there are so many well-preserved bodies left over in the Russian permafrost. Those bodies are rich with various tissues and DNA, unlike the remains of dinosaurs, which typically turn to stone through the fossilization process.
In other words, Jurassic Park is still a Hollywood pipe dream, but a Pleistocene World might be in reach — especially if Colossal can deliver on its mammoth promise.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Astronomers Discover an Intermediate-Mass Black Hole as it Destroys a Star – Universe Today
Supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way. They are mind-bogglingly massive, ranging from 1 million to 10 billion solar masses. Their smaller brethren, intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH), ranging between 100 and 100,000 solar masses, are harder to find.
Astronomers have spotted an intermediate-mass black hole destroying a star that got too close. They’ve learned a lot from their observations and hope to find even more of these black holes. Observing more of them may lead to understanding how SMBHs got so massive.
When a star gets too close to a powerful black hole, a tidal disruption event (TDE) occurs. The star is torn apart and its constituent matter is drawn to the black hole, where it gets caught in the hole’s accretion disk. The event releases an enormous amount of energy, outshining all the stars in the galaxy for months, even years.
That’s what happened with TDE 3XMM J215022.4-055108, which is more readily known as TDE J2150. Astronomers were only able to spot the elusive IMBH because of the burst of x-rays emitted by the hot gas from the star as it was torn apart. J2150 is about 740 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Aquarius constellation. Now a team of researchers has used observations of the distant J2150 and existing scientific models to learn more about the IMBH.
They’ve published their results in a paper titled “Mass, Spin, and Ultralight Boson Constraints from the Intermediate Mass Black Hole in the Tidal Disruption Event 3XMM J215022.4?055108.” The lead author is Sixiang Wen from the University of Arizona. The paper is published in The Astrophysical Journal.
IMBHs are elusive and difficult to study. Astronomers have found several of them in the Milky Way and in nearby galaxies. Mostly they’ve been spotted because of their low-luminosity active galactic nuclei. In 2019 the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories spotted a gravitational wave from the merger of two IMBHs. As it stands now, there’s a catalogue of only 305 IMBH candidates, even though scientists think they could be common in galactic centers.
One of the problems in seeing them is their low mass itself. While SMBHs can be found by observing how their mass affects the stellar dynamics of nearby stars, IMBHs are typically too small to do the same. Their gravity isn’t powerful enough to change the orbits of nearby stars.
“The fact that we were able to catch this black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible,” said Ann Zabludoff, UArizona professor of astronomy and co-author on the paper. “Not only that, by analyzing the flare we were able to better understand this elusive category of black holes, which may well account for the majority of black holes in the centers of galaxies.”
It was the eruption of x-rays that made the event visible. The team compared the observed x-rays with models and was able to confirm the presence of an IMBH. “The X-ray emissions from the inner disk formed by the debris of the dead star made it possible for us to infer the mass and spin of this black hole and classify it as an intermediate black hole,” lead author Wen said.
This is the first time that observations have been detailed enough to be able to use a TDE flare to confirm the presence of an IMBH. It’s a big deal, because though we know that SMBHs lie in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way and larger, our understanding of smaller galaxies and their IMBHs is much more limited. They’re just really hard to see.
“We still know very little about the existence of black holes in the centers of galaxies smaller than the Milky Way,” said co-author Peter Jonker of Radboud University and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, both in the Netherlands. “Due to observational limitations, it is challenging to discover central black holes much smaller than 1 million solar masses.”
The mystery surrounding IMBHs feeds into the mystery surrounding SMBHs. We can see SMBHs at the heart of large galaxies, but we don’t know exactly how they got that massive. Did they go through mergers? Maybe. Through the accretion of matter? Maybe. Astrophysicists mostly agree that both mechanisms may play a role.
Another question surrounds SMBH “seeds.” The seeds could be IMBHs of tens or hundreds of solar masses. The IMBHs themselves could’ve grown from stellar-mass black holes that grew into IMBHs through the accretion of matter. Another possibility is that long before there were actual stars, there were large gas clouds that collapsed into quasi-stars, that then collapsed into black holes. These strange entities would collapse directly from quasi-star to black hole without ever becoming a star, and are known as direct collapse black holes. But these are all hypotheses and models. Astrophysicists need more actual observations, like in the case of TDE J2150, to confirm or rule anything out.
“Therefore, if we get a better handle of how many bona fide intermediate black holes are out there, it can help determine which theories of supermassive black hole formation are correct,” Jonker said.
The team of researchers was also able to measure the black hole’s spin, which has implications for black hole growth, and maybe for particle physics, too. The black hole is spinning quickly, but it’s not spinning as fast as possible. It begs the question, how did the IMBH attain a speed in this range? The spin opens up some possibilities and eliminates others.
“It’s possible that the black hole formed that way and hasn’t changed much since, or that two intermediate-mass black holes merged recently to form this one,” Zabludoff said. “We do know that the spin we measured excludes scenarios where the black hole grows over a long time from steadily eating gas or from many quick gas snacks that arrive from random directions.”
The spin rate may shed some light on potential particle candidates for dark matter, too. One of the hypotheses says that dark matter is made up of particles never seen in a laboratory, called ultralight bosons. These exotic particles, if they exist, would have less than one-billionth the mass of an electron. The IMBHs spin rate may preclude the existence of these candidate particles.
“If those particles exist and have masses in a certain range, they will prevent an intermediate-mass black hole from having a fast spin,” co-author Nicholas Stone said. “Yet J2150’s black hole is spinning fast. So, our spin measurement rules out a broad class of ultralight boson theories, showcasing the value of black holes as extraterrestrial laboratories for particle physics.”
This discovery will build toward a better understanding of dwarf galaxies and their black holes, too. But for that to happen, astrophysicists need to observe more of these IMBH tidal disruption events.
“If it turns out that most dwarf galaxies contain intermediate-mass black holes, then they will dominate the rate of stellar tidal disruption,” Stone said. “By fitting the X-ray emission from these flares to theoretical models, we can conduct a census of the intermediate-mass black hole population in the universe,” Wen added.
As is often the case in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, future telescopes and observatories should advance our knowledge considerably. In this, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory could play a role. The Rubin could discover thousands of TDEs each year.
Then we may finally be able to piece together the story of not only IMBHs but also SMBHs.
NASA splits human spaceflight unit in two, reflecting new orbital economy – CTV News
NASA is splitting its human spaceflight department into two separate bodies – one centred on big, future-oriented missions to the moon and Mars, the other on the International Space Station and other operations closer to Earth.
The reorganization, announced by NASA chief Bill Nelson on Tuesday, reflects an evolving relationship between private companies, such as SpaceX, that have increasingly commercialized rocket travel and the federal agency that had exercised a U.S. monopoly over spaceflight for decades.
Nelson said the shake-up was also spurred by a recent proliferation of flights and commercial investment in low-Earth orbit even as NASA steps up its development of deep-space aspirations.
“Today is more than organizational change,” Nelson said at a press briefing. “It’s setting the stage for the next 20 years, it’s defining NASA’s future in a growing space economy.”
The move breaks up NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, currently headed by Kathy Leuders, into two separate branches.
Leuders will keep her associate administrator title as head of the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, focusing on NASA’s most ambitious, long-term programs, such as plans to return astronauts to the moon under project Artemis, and eventual human exploration of Mars.
A retired deputy associate administrator, James Free, who played key roles in NASA’s space station and commercial crew and cargo programs, will return to the agency as head of the new Space Operations Mission Directorate.
His branch will primarily oversee more routine launch and spaceflight activities, including missions involving the space station and privatization of low-Earth orbit, as well as sustaining lunar operations once those have been established.
“This approach with two areas focused on human spaceflight allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other builds future space systems,” NASA said in a press release announcing the move.
The announcement came less than a week after SpaceX, which had already flown numerous astronaut missions and cargo payloads to the space station for NASA, launched the first all-civilian crew ever to reach orbit and returned them safely to Earth.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)
Elon Musk trolls Biden with Trump line over perceived Inspiration4 snub – CNET
Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and leading orbital travel agent, was feeling a bit slighted by the world’s most powerful man after President Joe Biden failed to acknowledge the company’sthat sent four civilians on a three-day trip in orbit of our planet.
The flight was bankrolled by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who commanded the mission aboard a Crew Dragon capsule, alongside geologist Sian Proctor, data engineer Chris Sembroski and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital employee Hayley Arceneaux. The quartetoff the coast of Florida on Saturday.
The mission served as a fundraiser for St. Jude, with over $60 million raised from the public so far. Isaacman also pledged $100 million and Musk added $50 million.
When a Twitter user asked why the president hadn’t acknowledged Inspiration4, Musk hopped into the replies.
“He’s still sleeping,” the CEO wrote, in an apparent reference to Donald Trump’s favorite nickname for his former adversary, “sleepy” Joe Biden.
It seems fair to point out, as a number of other Twitter users have, that the president may have a few other things on his plate at the moment, like continuing to manage the response to a global pandemic, climate crisis and various national security threats.
For what it’s worth, NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a Biden appointee, did offer his congratulations to the crew multiple times.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Inspiration4 is the latest in a string ofthis year. Richard Branson flew to the edge of space on the first fully crewed flight of his Virgin Galactic spaceplane in July. Nine days later, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos cruised a bit higher with three other passengers on his New Shepard spacecraft.
Unlike those flights, which lasted under 15 minutes each, the Inspiration4 mission was a much more complex venture that saw the four passengers performing scientific research during the multiple day flight as they orbited Earth over 40 times.
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