Monkeys Made Smarter by Human Gene-Editing

James Marshall
April 14, 2019

The research led by scientists at the Kunming Institute of Zoology in southwestern China involved inserting human copies of the MCPH1 gene into monkey embryos via a virus that carried the gene.

A new study reveals the details of the experiment conducted by bioscientists from the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China, which added a human gene responsible for brain growth to the genome of monkeys.

After implanting 11 monkeys with different versions of MCPH1, a gene considered key to the development of the human brain, the scientists concluded that, like humans, the brain of the tested monkeys took longer to develop and performed better in short-term memory and reaction time tests compared to wild monkeys.

These transgenic nonhuman primates may have potential to provide insight into basic questions of what makes humans unique, and in future studies maybe even provide insight into neurodegenerative and social behavior disorders hard to study using other means. Su Bing, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Kunming Institute of Zoology and lead researcher of the new study, says that the experiments were validated by the institution's ethics board and followed Chinese and worldwide best practices.

"Brain size and cognitive skills are the most dramatically changed traits in humans during evolution, and yet the genetic mechanisms underlying these human-specific changes remain elusive", said a report published on March 27 in the China-based journal National Science Review.

Members of the scientific community are divided over a recent experiment that involved implanting human genes into monkeys' brains, even though a Chinese researcher is defending the experiment's objective.

"You just go to the Planet of the Apes immediately in the popular imagination", said Jacqueline Glover, a University of Colorado bioethicist. However, the global community has condemned the experiment as unethical. "Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that can't have a meaningful life in any context", she told MIT Technology Review.

However, Hong Kong University's Centre for Genomic Sciences researcher, Larry Baum explains that the genome of the rhesus monkey differs from human beings by a few percent.

"[There are] millions of individual DNA bases differing between humans and monkeys".

"James Sikela of the University of Colorado says ".use of transgenic monkeys to study genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take, it is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued". "You can decide for yourself whether there is anything to worry about". "When we do experiments, we have to have a good understanding of what we are trying to learn, to help society, and that is not the case here".

And a year ago, Chinese researcher He Jiankui shocked the scientific community after revealing that he had successfully gene-edited twin girls born in November to prevent them from contracting HIV.

They said the study was meant to aid research into human psychological problems.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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