First-ever Elephant stem cells created in the lab – Will Woolly Mammoths soon be walking the Earth again?

Mammoths in the Tundra
Mammoths in the Tundra
Colossal Biosciences

On March 6, Colossal Biosciences reported its monumental breakthrough: using Asian elephant stem cells, they had finally managed to create the notoriously hard to create elephant Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) in their efforts to “de-extinct” the Woolly Mammoths.

Ever wondered what life would be like if we could bring back the species we’d lost? If the dinosaurs again tromped across the land and the megalodons still terrorized the high seas? What if the prehistoric saber toothed beasts still roamed the wilds and the flightless Dodos waddled around on islands? But even before all that, what if we could save the species that we have from extinction? Millions of species are being wiped off the face of the Earth every year, but what if we could find a way to take the rapidly dwindling numbers and watch them grow into thriving populations of amazing animals? 

Colossal Biosciences is determined to do both. Their principal goal is to the resurrection of the Woolly Mammoth. The founder of the biotechnology company, Dr. George Church of Harvard Medical School, a renowned geneticist and molecular engineer, had been working with woolly mammoth cells for more than a decade before announcing his ambitious project. His rationale was that mammoth DNA, obtained from fossils, could be compared with that of their closest living relatives: the Asian elephants. These traits would then be edited into the Asian elephants’ DNAs to produce hybrid mammoths.

This breakthrough is much a major accomplishment because Colossal’s team of scientists was able to derive elephant Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells from a lab setting, which has never been done before. But this development was delayed by two roadblocks. 

The first was the short supply of stem cells the researcher’s could work with. They needed Asian elephant stem cells and unfortunately, there are only about 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and obtaining samples would involve drawing blood or tissue. To work around that, the team had to first grow their own supplies by turning adult stem cells into embryonic stem cells, drawing inspiration from the works of Japanese biologist, Dr. Shin Yamanaka. 

After that, the very nature of elephant cells thwarted the team’s earlier attempt. Elephant iPSCs are notoriously hard to create in labs for the one reason that has both baffled scientists and served the elephants: Elephants rarely get cancer. 

For a creature that large, that is highly unusual. But these pachyderms have defense mechanisms that protect them against cancer. As soon as a cell shows signs of mutations that cause cancer, these mechanisms either fix them or, barring that, cause the cell to self-terminate. The researchers’ alterations to the cell was registered as the onset of cancer and the cells were killed. So before the Colossal team could alter the cells into iPSCs, they had to disable these mechanisms, after which they could successfully reprogram the cells. 

“They seem to pass all the tests with flying colors,” Dr. Church said of the cells that were obtained, which have been coaxed to grow into an embryo-like cluster of cells. And the cells have developed into three distinct types found in early mammal embryos.

iPSCs, which are somatic cells altered to specialize into specific kinds of cells are so essential to this research because embryonic stem cells, the most well known of the iPSCs, can, unlike adult stem cells, be specialized into a almost any kind of cells and reproduce indefinitely under the right conditions. The researchers might have to create cells that have been extinct for millenia, making embryonic stem cells vital.  Not only that these cells can protect the dwindling population of Asian elephants, and even other species facing extinction. 

The plan is for the team to fuse the stem cells with the edited DNA with Asian elephant egg cells and implant those into a surrogate and eventually birth a mammoth-elephant hybrid. But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. We are still a ways from having little mammoth hybrids. 

But even after that, what happens? The mammoths died 4,000 years ago. Merely editing an Asian elephant to look like a mammoth does not make it one. The shaggy coats and the fearsome tusks aren’t the only things that allowed the Mammuthus primigenius to rule the tundras. It was so much more. 

As biologist Dr. Vincent Lynch of the University of Buffalo (not involved in the project) has said, “We know almost nothing about the genetics of complex behavior. So do we end up with a hairy Asian elephant that doesn’t know how to survive in the Arctic?”

Because some behaviors aren’t inherent, they are learnt. Heather Browning, a philosopher studying animal welfare at the University of Southampton in England (also not involved in the research) tells us that “They’ve got no elders to raise them, to teach them, no way of learning how to be mammoths.” 

Others still question how ethical it would be to create a single mammoth hybrid, alone and scared and confused. Dr. Church assures them that their goal is not a solitary mammoth but entire whole socializing herds. More critics still, like Gabriela Mastromonaco, senior director of wildlife science at the Toronto Zoo, accuse Colossal of distracting resources from actual conservation projects. She says that the millions of species facing extinction should be our primary focus and not fossils. 

So will we be able to turn back time and bring back a relic of the past? Will the mammoths return and restore the thawing tundras? Will the prehistoric return to the future and will the Earth’s waning biodiversity  be replaced with thriving creatures, both from the past and the present? So many questions. Only time has the answers. 

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About the Contributor
Eliza Dean
Eliza Dean, Contributor
Eliza Dean is a senior at Centreville High School and is enjoying her first year on the Sentinel staff. She joined the Journalism program because she likes writing and wanted to diversify her portfolio as a writer. After school, Eliza likes to spend time reading, watching historical television, and spending time with her family. Though quiet by nature, Eliza is always willing to offer her help to her peers. In the future, she hopes to pursue some sort of biological science or a career path that allows her to work with different aspects of the natural world.

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