7 Useful Genetic Experiments That Are Creepy As Hell
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.
Mice That Chirp Like Birds
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."
Mice That Produce Drinkable Milk
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.
Reviving Extinct Animals
Bringing back prehistoric animals has been a trope in science fiction for a very, very long time. So far, none of these efforts have come to fruition.
Scientists have been trying to clone the wooly mammoth for over 10 years, and despite continuous reassurance that we're on the brink of a major breakthrough, no one's pulled it off yet. The only prehistoric creatures we've successfully revived is bacteria -- and even they weren't really dead, just suspended inside a salt crystal or in the stomach of a fossilized bee. This is the scientific equivalent of winning a bag of Skittles in the lottery.
Still, though. Skittles.
Most recently, a scientist announced his intention to reverse-engineer a dinosaur from a modern chicken by systematically removing DNA, because that makes nothing but sense.
However, scientists have succeeded in reviving the genetic material of an extinct predator called the Tasmanian tiger, a nine-foot-long giant marsupial capable of hopping on its hind legs like a kangaroo and hiding its young in a pouch, presumably to launch them out as bloodthirsty living projectiles.
We quite rightly hunted these monsters to extinction, and the last one died in captivity in 1936, presumably in an emotionally stirring display like when Draco the last dragon dies in DragonHeart.
Otherwise known as "the saddest Sean Connery-related moment of our childhood."
In 2008, scientists succeeded in splicing genetic material from the tiger into a lab mouse, because, "Of all the DNA that's ever existed, only one percent is presently in circulation. The rest is lost to history, along with the insights it might provide. By bringing back lost genes, scientists can see what they do."
That's right: Science injected a mouse with Tasmanian tiger genes just to see what would happen.
"This is going to rock tits."
The extinct-animal shenanigans don't stop there. The possibility of splicing mice with pterodactyl wings has been raised, which is the greatest idea ever in the history of thought. And in 2009, scientists successfully recreated the Tasmanian tiger's entire gene sequence from museum specimens, suggesting that the animal could eventually be successfully cloned.
Seriously, this can't be more than two years away.
Twenty Tons of Tumor
In February 1951, Henrietta Lacks had a cell sample taken from a particularly nasty tumor. She died later that year, but in the hands of scientists, the sample lived much, much longer.
Even after the tumor was removed from Lacks' body, researchers found, it was ravenous. It devoured nutrients. If introduced into a dish with another type of cell, it would overwhelm it within weeks. And it multiplied and multiplied, in only two-thirds of the time it took other cells to do the same.
At which point it joined the Uncanny X-Men.
Lacks' cells spread like the plague among the scientific community, partly because of their incredible research value and also because they literally spread like a plague. They couldn't be contained -- they sneaked onto unrelated samples and traveled from lab to lab, some of the cells even making their way into Russia at the height of the Cold War.
HeLa, as the tumor was called, both to protect Lacks' identity and screw her family out of untold amounts of cash, is what's called an "immortal" cell line, meaning that it can reproduce infinitely, and it's also a laboratory "weed" that inevitably spreads and contaminates other cell samples. It has been a boon to the medical community and invaluable for research.
HeLa cells, seen here plotting world domination.
So what's weird about that? Think about this: To date, scientists have grown around 20 tons of HeLa cells, 400 times the woman's body weight when she was alive.
And roughly the same weight as Tyrannosaurus rex.
All of this happened without her family's knowledge or consent. It wasn't until the 1970s, when her children received a call for assistance in testing, that they learned a that zombie blob of their mother's body tissue was still alive and squishing.
Over half a century later, HeLa continues to thrive. It's even continued to evolve. Some scientists are ready to declare HeLa an actual unique species -- aside from its origin, it eats and reproduces independently like any other unicellular species, despite being the unholy John Carpenteresque mutant offspring of a lady who passed away 60 years ago.
If only there were some miraculous creature that didn't think or feel pain, that only grew plumper and more scrumptious until you could tear it apart with your teeth without guilt.
Enter living bacon.
Scientists have produced semiliving, nonsentient blobs of edible pork cells. It's not even a new thing: Back in 2002, NASA successfully engineered living goldfish meat as part of an experiment to produce replenishable food supplies for astronauts, because for some goddamn reason NASA thinks people enjoy eating goldfish.
There are other advantages to cloned meat: It can be produced cheaply without harming real animals and produced in large enough quantities that it could reduce world hunger and negate the environmental damage caused by the meat industry. Assuming, you know, people want to eat quasi-living blobs of pork.
"We'll eat anything, as long as it's salty and fills the hole in our empty lives."
The meat starts as pig stem cells, which are nurtured until they grow into muscle cells that are identical to edible pork, although they require exercise to be made palatable. "We need to find ways of improving it by training it and stretching it," one scientist admits.
Just toss this on a treadmill for a few minutes and you're ready to go.
No one's actually tried the stuff yet, but a scientist describes the texture as "firm but a little squishy and moist." After pork, ground beef seems like the next plausible step, although we can't imagine McDonald's hamburgers tasting any more like synthetic depression than they already do.
Fletcher is a freelance writer and author of a forthcoming memoir to be published in late 2011.
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