The Reversing Climate Change podcast with Nori
A podcast about the different people, technologies, and organizations that are coming together to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reverse climate change. We also talk about blockchains.

#73: Using De-extinct DNA to Restore Grasslands in Pleistocene Park—with Nikita Zimov & George Church

May 7, 2019


A significant amount of carbon has been stored in Arctic permafrost for tens of thousands of years. And unless we take radical steps to restore the ecosystem that we destroyed there, the permafrost will melt and release 1400 GT of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. This dwarfs the amount humans generate annually and would accelerate climate change on an exponential scale. So, what can we do to reestablish the grasslands and reintroduce the animals that used to dominate the region? And what do we do if the wildlife that supported the ecosystem have since gone extinct? Can we use ancient DNA to create hybrid elephant-mammoths with the potential to thrive there? 

Nikita Zimov is the Director of Pleistocene Park, a project in northern Siberia using wild grazing animals to reestablish climate-stabilizing grasslands in the region. The initiative began in 1988, and to date, the 20 km^2 is home to 8 major herbivore species. George Church is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and pioneer in the realm of genome sequencing. Through his work with Revive & Restore, George and his team are working to de-extinct the genes of the woolly mammoth to save the Asian elephant from extinction and populate Pleistocene Park.

Today, George and Nikita join Ross and Christophe to share the vision for Pleistocene Park and the ground-breaking work in genome editing that supports the reintroduction of megafauna to the region. Nikita explains why restoring grasslands to the Arctic is crucial in mitigating climate change, and George discusses his work to make elephants compatible with warm and cold temperatures. They also cover the ethical questions regarding genome editing and the worst-case scenarios around restoring the grassland ecosystem in Siberia. Listen in to understand the potential to scale and perhaps replicate Pleistocene Park around the globe and learn how to support George and Nikita’s work to prevent the degradation of permafrost and reverse climate change!

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Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warmingedited by Paul Hawken

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creaturesby Ben Mezrich

Pleistocene Park

Pleistocene Park on Facebook

Pleistocene Park Foundation

Revive & Restore

Woolly Mammoth Revival on Revive & Restore

Carbon Removal Newsroom

Review RCC on iTunes

Key Takeaways

[1:31] George’s path to reversing climate change

  • Fascinated with mammoths as kid (1964 World’s Fair)
  • Apply next generation sequencing to ancient DNA
  • Multiple edits to elephant genome, cope w/ new needs 

[3:40] The definition of genome sequencing

  • Ability to read and write DNA
  • Synthesize or edit to hybrid of ancient + modern species

[4:59] Nikita’s path to reversing climate change

  • Father’s idea to restore grassland in Arctic
  • Took over family business

[5:43] The vision for Pleistocene Park

  • Grasses need animals to compete with shrubs, trees
  • Bring animals back and mitigate climate change

[8:35] Why grassland is valuable to the Arctic

  • Current sparse vegetation can’t store much CO2
  • Restored soil could store 100kg of carbon/m2
  • Prevent degradation of permafrost

[14:29] Why Pleistocene Park needs megafauna

  • Trample snow in winter to protect permafrost
  • Support grass in competing w/ other vegetation

[16:50] George’s work to edit the elephant genome

  • Done necessary # of edits in pigs, human cells
  • Nuclear transfer to African elephant eggs or grow embryo in lab
  • Resistant to herpes, compatible w/ warm + cold temperatures

[19:40] The ethical questions associated with genome editing

  • Impact on modern species
  • Ability to reverse changes

[21:30] The groundbreaking nature of George’s work

  • First time organism depends on functioning of de-extinct genes
  • Develop cold-resistant elephants (‘elemmoths’)

[22:27] George’s take on what could go wrong

  • Permafrost melts, release 1400 GT on CO2+ methane
  • Cold-resistant elephants fail to breed well

[24:35] The opportunities around genome editing with other animals

  • George’s focus to support endangered species (vs. extinct)
  • High-quality DNA available from passenger pigeons, aurochs

[26:50] Nikita’s plans to scale Pleistocene Park

  • Relatively easy to extend 10X (no competing financial interest)
  • Need to replicate in Alaska, Canada for meaningful impact

[29:25] The Russian government’s position on climate change

  • Land for Pleistocene Park given tax-free
  • Shift to accept idea that climate change real

[31:38] The potential for unforeseen consequences at Pleistocene Park

  • Worst-case scenario to do nothing
  • Greatest concern = working quickly enough
  • Trees doomed anyway if permafrost thaws
  • Ecosystem big enough for migration

[37:47] What’s next for George

  • Communicate possibility of reversal through film of Woolly
  • Experiments on ground + in lab

[38:53] What’s next for Nikita

  • Introduce new animals, extend territory of park
  • Increase # of herbivores + introduce predators
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