Colossal Biosciences Adds Renowned Ancient DNA Expert as Chief Science Officer

Dallas-based Colossal said that in her new role, MacArthur Award winner Beth Shapiro will oversee continued expansion of the company's de-extinction and conservation science teams. The company previously announced plans to "de-extinct" the woolly mammoth, the Tasmanian tiger, and the dodo bird.

Renowned evolutionary molecular biologist and ancient DNA expert Beth Shapiro, Ph.D., has joined Colossal Biosciences as chief science officer.

Dallas-based Colossal said that in her new role, Shapiro will oversee continued expansion of the company’s de-extinction and conservation science teams.

“Beth and I have developed an incredible relationship over the past few years. I’m extremely impressed by her intellect, drive, and the rigor of her scientific research,” Colossal Co-Founder and CEO Ben Lamm said in a statement. “I know she will continue to push our scientific research programs further and is the best fit for the role. It’s a dream to work so closely with Beth, and I know our species leads feel the same.”

The company said that Shapiro leaves her roles as Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and lead of the Paleogenomics Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, effective March 15th.

“I’ve been an advisor to Colossal since just after the company launched, and am excited now to step in full-time to support the team’s groundbreaking work,” Shapiro said in a statement. “It’s thrilling to see the research we’ve been doing in the labs not only seeing the light of day, but being applied to science that will positively impact the planet.”

Dr. Beth Shapiro and Colossal Co-Founder and CEO Ben Lamm with a stuffed dodo. [Photo: Colossal]

Colossal said that in the past two years, as an advisor, Shapiro has contributed to the company by:

  • Helping to launch the Dodo and Avian Genomics Group
  • Developing, along with numerous members of the Colossal team, the international scientific advisory board
  • Serving as the Lead Paleogeneticist, helping to secure samples and generate ancient DNA data that Colossal is using as part of all species groups

Colossal announced plans to “de-extinct” the dodo in 2023, after previously announcing plans to de-extinct the woolly mammoth via an elephant-mammoth hybrid, as well as to bring back the Tasmanian tiger. The company’s investors include everyone from the CIA to Paris Hilton to a long list of VC firms and billionaires like tech investor and USIT Chairman Thomas Tull.

Academic honors and innovations

A MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award winner and National Geographic Explorer, Shapiro is a pioneer in the scientific fields of ancient DNA and paleogenomics, Colossal said.

During her doctoral research, which she completed as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, Shapiro generated the first DNA data from a dodo and used this to determine that this icon of human-caused extinction was actually a type of pigeon.

Shapiro also was the first to ask population-scale questions using ancient DNA data, developing a suite of new experimental and computational tools to reveal that the American bison nearly went extinct along with other icons of the Ice Age including mammoths, North American horses, and giant bears, Colossal said.

That work won her a coveted Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which she accepted along with a Senior Research Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, and the directorship of the Henry Wellcome Biomolecules Centre. Colossal said that while at Oxford, Shapiro continued to break then-barriers in ancient DNA research, collaborating in projects to sequence the first whole genome from an extinct species—a mammoth—and the first DNA directly from sediments.

Shapiro moved back to the U.S. in 2007 to accept a faculty position in the Department of Biology at Penn State University. Colossal said that Shapiro’s accolades during this part of her career include being named a Searle Scholar, Packard Fellow, PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellow, National Geographic Explorer, and placed on Smithsonian Magazine’s “37 Young American Innovators under the age of 36.”

While at Penn State, she expanded her research program to include questions about plant and animal domestication, conservation, and the role of admixture between lineages as an evolutionary force, Colossal said.

Shapiro moved her research program to the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2012, where she along with Dr. Richard “Ed” Green established the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab. Today, that is of the leading ancient DNA research facilities in the world.

‘A colossal pioneer’

Shapiro and her team have used their new technology to generate genomes from samples once believed to be too old—including the ancient long-horned bison that became extinct more than 100,000 years ago, and too poorly preserved, such as the taxidermied remains of Balto the famous sled dog—to retain recoverable DNA.

Shapiro has also focused increasingly on applying genomics approaches to aid management of endangered species and habitats, such as through her roles as executive committee member of the California Conservation Genomics Project and the Vertebrate Genomes Project. In 2019, Shapiro was selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, joining around 300 scientists from across the United States who are recognized for their track record of scientific innovation and discovery.

So far, Shapiro has published more than 200 peer-reviewed manuscripts, many in leading scientific journals such as Science, Nature, and Cell. She is an elected Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and her work spans technology development, basic ecological and evolutionary science, and applications of genomics, including for endangered species management and conservation.

Colossal said that during her career, Shapiro has never been able to avoid the obvious question about paleogenomics: if we can sequence their genomes, can we bring extinct species back from the dead?

In response, Shapiro has dedicated a significant portion of her time to exploring this question, with articles in the popular and scientific press, as part of a nationwide National Geographic Live! series, on television and in documentary films, and in her award-winning popular science books, How to Clone a Mammoth (2015 and 2020) and Life as We Made It (2021). Shapiro’s work led to her election in 2023 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies.

“It’s so great to have Beth join as CSO, bringing her inventive spirit and her many achievements in ancient populations of avian and mammalian species,” George Church Ph.D., Colossal co-founder and a world-renowned geneticist, said in a statement. “She is a rare combination of charisma, scholarship and environmental dedication. A colossal pioneer.”

A mammoth effort of de-extinction

Other experts in the field recognize her work, too.

“I’ve worked with Beth for over 20 years and am continually impressed by her contributions to the field of paleogenetics,” said Love Dalen, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, one of the research leaders at the Center for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, and leading Woolly Mammoth expert. “I cannot be more excited about Beth joining Colossal, as this will not only help accelerate Colossal’s de-extinction efforts but will also provide an even more direct link between my ancient mammoth research and Eriona’s and George’s teams. I look forward to continuing our collaboration with Colossal to refine our target list of which genes make mammoths unique compared to other elephant lineages.”

Tom Gilbert, director of the Danish National Research Foundation Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics and the group leader of the Hologenomics group at the GLOBE Institute, said: “Beth has not only a distinguished background in leading cutting-edge research in the fields of ancient DNA and evolutionary genomics, but is also one of the leading authorities on all the various nuances needed for successful de-extinction events. In this regard, Colossal Biosciences could not have chosen a better person to help them set, and ultimately realize, their goals.”

Carlos Bustamante, American population geneticist, academic, and entrepreneur currently at Stanford and CEO of Galatea Bio Inc., lauded her addition to the Colossal team.

“Colossal is working on the hardest and most critical problems in mammalian biology. Considering Beth‘s successes as an experimentalist, breakthrough scientist and scientific thought leader, she is an absolutely inspired choice to lead this effort,” Bustamante said. “Her addition is another step that cements Colossal as a dream team.”

Colossal was founded by Lamm, an emerging technology and software entrepreneur, and Church, a world-renowned geneticist and serial biotech entrepreneur, and is the first to apply CRISPR technology for the purposes of species de-extinction.

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