A biotech company has succeeded in converting skin cells from Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) into stem cells capable of growing into the layered cells that become vertebrate tissues—a feat that may not only help conserve the endangered species, but also aid efforts to bring back mammoths.

Although induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have been made from the cells of various mammals, including threatened species such as the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), elephant cells have proved especially difficult to reprogram, the company behind the work, Colossal Biosciences, tells Nature.

Ultimately, the researchers succeeded by combining methods used in other species to revert elephants’ skin cells to an embryoniclike state, the team reports in a 6 March biorXiv preprint, which has yet to undergo peer review. The scientists say they plan to use the four cell lines they’ve created to test run the genetic adjustments needed to tweak the genome of an Asian elephant to wind up with something very similar to a woolly mammoth, the first step to bring back mammoths. Other experts say the achievement could shed light on elephant biology and provide a road map of sorts for generating iPSCs for other endangered species.

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