Scientists Create Elephant Stem Cells in the Lab

When the biotechnology firm Colossal started in 2021, it set an eyebrow-raising goal: to genetically engineer elephants with hair and other traits found on extinct woolly mammoths.

Three years later, mammoth-like creatures do not roam the tundra. But on Wednesday, researchers with the company reported a noteworthy advance: They created elephant stem cells that could potentially be developed into any tissue in the body.

Eriona Hysolli, the head of biological sciences at Colossal, said that the cells could help protect living elephants. For example, researchers could create an abundant supply of elephant eggs for breeding programs. “Being able to derive a lot of them in a dish is important,” she said.

Independent researchers, too, were impressed by the cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. Vincent Lynch, a biologist at the University at Buffalo who was not involved in the research, said iPSCs could help scientists learn about the strange biology of elephants — including why they so rarely develop cancer.

“The ability to study this with iPSCs is very exciting,” Dr. Lynch said. The discovery “opens a world of possibilities to study cancer resistance,” he added.

The data were published online Wednesday but have not yet appeared in a scientific journal.

George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School, started trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth more than a decade ago. At the time, geneticists were extracting DNA from the bones of the extinct animals and pinpointing genetic differences between them and their living elephant cousins. Dr. Church reasoned that if he could alter an elephant embryo’s DNA, it would sport some of the traits that allowed woolly mammoths to survive in cold climates.

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