Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have, for the first time, taken chimpanzee and bonobo skin cells and turned them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a type of cell that has the ability to form any other cell or tissue in the body. Mouse iPSCs were created in 2006 by Kazutoshi Takahashi and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University in Japan, and human iPSCs soon followed — -feats which earned Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last year. Now scientists regularly use iPSCs to model diseases using cells that would be otherwise difficult to obtain from a living person or animal. By adding a combination of four key factors, a skin cell can be made into an iPSC, which can then be coaxed into forming liver, lung and brain cells in a culture dish.
“Comparing human, chimpanzee and bonobo cells can give us clues to understand biological processes, such as infection, diseases, brain evolution, adaptation or genetic diversity,” says senior research associate Iñigo Narvaiza, who led the study with senior staff scientist Carol Marchetto at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. “Until now, the sources for chimpanzee and bonobo cells were limited to postmortem tissue or blood. Now you could generate neurons, for example, from the three different species and compare them to test hypotheses.”
The new study provides proof of concept that the iPSC technology can be used to understand some of the evolutionary differences between humans and non-human primates, says Narvaiza. The group plans to make technology, and all the data, available to the broader research community — -which is especially helpful now that great ape research is severely restricted in the United States and abroad — -so that other scientists can learn about primates using non-invasive, ethically sound methods.