Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify 'Designer' Beagles

Tuesday, 20 October 2015 - 5:45PM
Science News
Genetic Engineering
Tuesday, 20 October 2015 - 5:45PM
Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify 'Designer' Beagles
Scientists just got one significant step closer to designer babies, as Chinese researchers have managed to create genetically modified beagles with twice as many muscles as a normal beagle. 

Genetically modifying animals, including pets, is nothing new, as we have been breeding animals for centuries. But this development has much more consequence than your average mini-poodle, as the dogs (Tiangou and Hercules, who hopefully enjoy the same quality of life as other beagles) were genetically modified using the cutting-edge DNA editing technique, CRISPR-Cas 9. The researchers deleted a single gene in the beagles' genomes, called myostatin, which caused the beagles to be born super-buff. 

They only modified one gene for this experiment, but CRISPR could potentially allow for pervasive modifications to the genome. The cut-and-paste technique allows researchers to literally design genetic fingerprints on the computer and translate the programming to real life. Since the technique is relatively simple, it could be used on humans in the foreseeable future.

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"It's the one of the most precise and efficient ways we have of editing DNA in any cell, including humans," genetics professor George Church of Harvard University told The Telegraph.
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The technique isn't perfect by any means; the researchers oversaw the birth of 27 genetically modified puppies, and only two had the desired phenotype. And of the two puppies, Tiangou showed obvious physical changes in her amount of muscle, but Hercules, who was still producing some myostatin, looked more similar to a normal beagle. But the method was still successful, and will most likely be used on human embryos eventually, albeit after years of testing.

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"We have already modified embryos of both pigs and primates," said Church. "It might actually be safer, and developmentally important to make corrections in a sperm or embryo, rather than a young child or an adult."
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The potential benefits and drawbacks of genetic engineering have been discussed extensively in bioethics circles; while gene editing could allow us to eliminate devastating genetic diseases and disabilities, such as Tay-Sachs or certain types of blindness, it could also have unintended consequences. Physically, we don't know the long-term effects of genetic modification, nor the effect on future generations' genomes, and socially, an extreme case could lead to a Gattaca-type stratified society. These concerns, and others, recently led the White House to call for scientists to hold off on human genetic engineering. But with all of the recent advancements in the field, some genetic modification of the human genome seems inevitable.
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