Weekly reads: elephant stem cells, RIP Connie Eaves, AI cell biology

Last week one of the most popular stories was about a preprint from a mammoth de-extinction research group led by George Church having made elephant stem cells. I finally got a chance to look carefully at their preprint.

elephant stem cells
Will elephant stem cells actually be used to make mammoths or just elephants with a few mammoth-related traits?

Elephant stem cells preprint and mammoth de-extinction

The elephant stem cells preprint has solid data. It looks like the team did succeed in making elephant induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells.

This study was quite a bit of work in some ways because of using various unique reagents from elephants. It’ll be interesting to see if any other groups will try the methods to replicate the work.

It’s possible no one will because it’s a niche area.

Making modified elephants rather than mammoths

I have doubts about how useful elephant iPS cells are going to be in the mammoth de-extinction effort. This points to a key, unfortunate reality of this project. The fact is that they aren’t going to make mammoths. As I wrote last week, most likely in the end, the team, if they “succeed” will instead likely have just made a mostly elephant-like creature with some mammoth features.

In a quote from a Rob Stein NPR piece, Church indicated the final ‘product’ would be somewhat different from a mammoth:

“Scientists can now try to use cloning techniques and gene editing to manipulate the cells in the hopes of someday creating elephants with key traits of mammoths, such as their heavy coats and the layers of fat that enabled them to survive in cold climates.

We don’t necessarily need to bring back a perfect genome of a mammoth, because we want one that has certain things that mammoths didn’t have. Like we want them to be resistant to the herpesvirus that is causing a huge fraction of infant elephants to die,” Church said.”

Risks of this project

So in our warming world, we want to make new versions of elephants with mammoth-like thick coats of fur and layers of fat that are well-suited for a colder world? Why? This is real reason to be concerned that the new creatures would have a poor quality of life.

Is the team also going to orchestrate a new ice age for their “mammoths” to live more comfortably within?

Create a giant air-conditioned and domed enclosure for them to live in? Limit the new creatures’ living space to the extreme reaches of Siberia so it’s appropriately colder?

Strictly thinking about lab work, I can see that elephant iPS cells could be the basis for tons of cool research. As a side note, I also find it intriguing that elephants have so many copies of the tumor suppressor p53, which is an obstacle to reprogramming somatic cells into iPS cells. All those copies may contribute to elephants so rarely getting cancer.

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2 thoughts on “Weekly reads: elephant stem cells, RIP Connie Eaves, AI cell biology”

  1. jsherleybc206c85c7

    Dear Admin:

    Thanks for sharing the very sad news about Dr. Connie Eaves’ passing. I did not know her well, but I shared a dinner or lunch table with her on two occasions at stem cell research conferences when I was just settling into leading a research laboratory. Her wit, the twinkle in her smile, her deep understanding of tissue stem cell biology, and incisive approach to tissue stem cell investigations made her an instant role model for me. But what remains dearest to me from those brief moments learning from her, that has stayed with me about Dr. Eaves all these many years because in my experience it has been so rare in my career during such moments, is how genuine she was when discussing research with me, the lone Black scientist at those conference. Though I never “corresponded” with her, over the years I would send her reports from my research group that I felt were our best efforts. In fact, just recently, being unaware of her death, I sent to her lab my most recent report describing in more generally accessible terms Asymmetrex®’s new method for quantifying tissue stem cells. As her obituaries will affirm, she was a remarkable scientist, mentor, and person.

    Indeed, may she rest in great peace.

    James @ Asymmetrex®

  2. The passing of Dr Eaves is a terrible loss. She was my dear friend and inspiration to get into science.

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