Woolly mammoth de-extinction inches closer after elephant stem cell breakthrough

Woolly mammoth de-extinction inches closer after elephant stem cell breakthrough

A significant advancement has been achieved in stem cell research involving elephants, potentially bringing scientists closer to the revival of long-extinct woolly mammoths, as announced by the de-extinction company Colossal Biosciences.

According to a statement shared with Live Science, Colossal’s Woolly Mammoth team has successfully derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). iPSCs are reprogrammed cells capable of developing into any cell type in the body. This breakthrough allows researchers to delve into the genetic and cellular mechanisms distinguishing woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) from their closest living relatives and conduct gene editing experiments without relying on tissue samples from live animals.

Eriona Hysolli, the head of biological sciences and mammoth lead at Colossal Biosciences, emphasized the significance of these cells in unraveling the adaptations that facilitated woolly mammoths’ survival in the Arctic, such as their distinctive features like shaggy hair, curved tusks, fat deposits, and a dome-shaped cranium. Additionally, iPSCs pave the way for generating elephant sperm and egg cells in the laboratory, crucial for mammoth de-extinction, given the challenges and ethical concerns associated with harvesting cells from the dwindling population of Asian elephants in the wild.

Previous attempts to derive elephant iPSCs were hindered by the species’ complex gene pathway, particularly the TP53 genes regulating cell growth. Hysolli explained that overcoming this obstacle required suppressing the TP53 pathway through a multistep process.

This breakthrough also offers insights into the early development of elephants, addressing a major obstacle to woolly mammoth de-extinction. The ability to create a woolly mammoth embryo by combining ancient mammoth DNA with elephant cells hinges on understanding elephant gestation, which is prolonged and intricate.

Vincent Lynch, a developmental biologist at the University at Buffalo, hailed the achievement as a vital step toward creating a woolly mammoth-like elephant, emphasizing the eventual goal of producing sperm and eggs from iPSCs to facilitate in vitro fertilization and surrogacy.

Moreover, reprogramming elephant cells into iPSCs holds promise beyond mammoth de-extinction, offering potential applications in elephant conservation. The technology could aid in producing and fertilizing reproductive cells artificially, thus contributing to species preservation efforts.

While the breakthrough marks a significant milestone, further validation and experimentation are required before its full potential can be realized. Nonetheless, the successful derivation of iPSCs from elephants represents a crucial advancement in the field of genetic engineering and conservation biology.