There is no field of science that feels more like "playing God" than genetic engineering. It doesn't matter how pro-science and forward-thinking you are -- there's something weird about dicking around with the building blocks of life.
To help set your mind at ease, here are some of the most baffling and bizarre experiments going on right now.
Despite what comic books tell you, mutation can't be counted on to reliably produce superpowers. On the other hand, a species can't evolve without it. Most of the useful features that now come standard on the human body -- like arms and eyebrows -- started out as a mutation somewhere up the genetic line. It's just that most of the time, mutation is going to produce something terrifying.
Scientists in Japan, ignoring a rich cultural history of monster movies, decided they liked those odds. The Evolved Mouse Project genetically modified a handful of mice, increasing the likelihood of their DNA miscopying and therefore making them susceptible to mutation. The mice started reproducing, and from their mutant loins sprang hilarious abominations, including, for instance, one with stumpy legs and a tail like a dachshund.
And also Kevin Bacon.
Then one morning, the scientists checked their experiment and found one of the little guys chirping like a bird.
Although the singing mutation is random, it appears that the mice are actually using it to express themselves. Male mice sing more often around female mice, presumably to attract them as mates. The mice also sing more when they're placed in different environments.
And when they're looking for Fievel Mousekewitz.
The researchers also claim that the singing mice may help us understand the origins of human speech, noting that the mutated mice seem to be developing different dialects depending on their environment.
Lead researcher Arikuni Uchimura had this to say about the project: "I know it's a long shot and people would say it's 'too absurd'... but I'm doing this with hopes of making a Mickey Mouse someday."
And maybe, one dark day, a SpongeBob.
Evidently, in addition to being a geneticist, Uchimura is also seven years-old.
Hey, speaking of science's dream to someday create a sentient rodent, what happens if you inject human sperm into a hamster's egg cell? Science knows, because they've done it.
Enter the humster. If you're thinking this is a hamster that hums, you're pronouncing it wrong. It's a human-hamster hybrid.
Now, like many hybrid embryos, the humster is completely unviable and as a rule is destroyed long before it can mutate into a horrifying real-life version of Master Splinter. And to be fair, there are legitimate scientific reasons for creating a humster. Human embryos are difficult to procure for experiments and are protected by legal restrictions. Hamster embryos, however, are fair game. So why not throw some human sperm at them?
Not as a drunken prank, mind you. The reason is that if a couple is struggling with infertility, a hamster embryo can also be used to check the viability of the man's sperm cells. This is one of those techniques that lies squarely in the Venn diagram overlap between "really good cause" and "Frankensteinesque."
"Alternatively, you could try having oodles of unprotected sex."
Though frankly, if a man's seed refuses to make a baby with his wife but then jumps at the possibility of fertilizing an unviable rodent egg, it might be best for all concerned if he avoided passing on his genes. But we're not scientists.
You know how some types of jellyfish glow in the dark? Wouldn't it be weird if some day science was able to splice that gene into other animals to make neon versions?
Also, puppies with no rectums.
Well, you're in luck, because according to Popular Science, you can buy glowing mice, right now, to the tune of $1,156 for 50 embryos. For the budget-minded enthusiast of mad science, there's the GloFish, advertised as the world's first transgenic pet and available in Starfire Red, Electric Green and Sunburst Orange. Illegal in the state of California!
Which is a shame, because nothing goes better with weed than glowing fish.
Of course, we've previously mentioned glowing jellyfish monkeys -- creatures that combine the uncanny intelligence of our closest animal relatives with the squishy bioluminescence of nature's toxic disco-sticks. And as of 2009, scientists have invented monkeys that not only glow but pass their radioactive essence on to their children.
Meanwhile, supposed "transgenic artist" Eduardo Kac raised headlines at the start of the decade for commissioning Alba, the glowing bunny. She's been joined in recent years by the Ruby Puppy (the Ruppy), dogs that glow red under ultraviolet light after having been spliced with genes from sea anemones. Furthermore, South Korean scientists claim to have produced glowing cats, although this news comes on the heels of the discovery that a famed South Korean scientist who a breakthrough in human cloning.
There's actually a somewhat-credible justification for the existence of these creatures. The bioluminescence gene is easy to isolate and transfer to other organisms, and once it's in there, it's even easier to tell whether it's been successfully expressed. (Hint: If the animal is glowing, you may have been successful.) This kind of transgenic research can be used to test the viability of more complex enhancements, such as coding a person with immunity to specific diseases.
That said, the publicity that comes from producing an adorable glow-in-the-dark puppy might also have something to do with it.
"For outstanding achievement in the field of mocking God's creation."
First of all, we completely realize that this was a Simpsons episode.
But science has finally caught up. They have bred mice that make milk for your baby to drink.
It's all about lactoferrin, a substance in breast milk that boosts infant immune systems. According to National Geographic, human milk contains only four to five grams of the stuff per liter. But mice produce milk that is naturally rich in protein, so if you can program them to make lactoferrin instead of squandering it on useless cheese-eating mouse proteins, they can produce milk that includes up to 160 grams per liter.
It's worth noting that this isn't the first experiment of this type. As we've covered before, goats have been modified to make spider proteins. Engineered rabbits have been used to produce milk that helped treat a particular muscular disorder. And sharks have been given enlarged brains to harvest proteins that fight Alzheimer's.
That was real, right?
But the procedure still has a couple of snags that need to be worked out. Scientists must anesthetize the mice and then attach tiny pumps to their itty-bitty mouse teats to harvest negligible quantities of milk (yes, just like in The Simpsons). This process is admittedly hilarious but extremely inefficient. For the stuff to be produced on an industrial scale, we'll need to engineer other animals, such as goats or cows, to produce the super mouse milk. Because once you've introduced rodents to the formula, splicing in ordinary livestock doesn't seem so bad.
Although at this point we're wondering why they don't just cut out the middleman and market genetic lactating enhancements to prospective mothers.
Possibly because "Pump your tits full of these!" is a tough sell.