Science Questions

Could genetically engineered humans drink seawater?

Wed, 4th Apr 2012

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Question

Chris Finnigan asked:

Would it be possible to genetically engineer humans to be able to

drink sea water?

 

Thanks,

 

Chris - In France

Answer

Obviously this would be quite useful as there are many places where its hard to get freshwater, and most of the water on the planet is salty. Unfortunately we dehydrate very quickly if we drink it on its own, because our kidneys have to get rid of more water than we would actually take in from the seawater to get rid of the extra salt. This happens because we can only make urine with a certain level of saltiness, because the tubes in our kidneys that concentrate urine, known as the loops of Henle, are of a fixed length.

Some animals like the desert rat can drink relatively salty water, as they have very long loops of Henle and can produce very concentrated, salty urine. So if we could find out the genes that affect the length of these loops, I think its theoretically possible that we could genetically engineer humans with kidneys that can cope with drinking saltier water. But because the kidneys develop very early in life, youd have to do this while a baby was growing in the womb. And this kind of genetic modification is technically and ethically very difficult to do.

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Chris Finnigan asked the Naked Scientists: Would it be possible to genetically engineer humans to be able to drink sea water? Thanks, Chris - In France What do you think? Chris Finnigan , Fri, 29th Apr 2011

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