Could you mix human and animal genes?

26 July 2015

Question

I recently saw a movie called "Splice" a Canadian-French science fiction-horror film directed by Vincenzo Natali and starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, who portray a young scientist couple, choosing to introduce human DNA into their work of splicing animal genes. The two scientists secretly create a human female who has a whole lot of animal instincts and super type abilities as well as certain animal features. I found this film to be extremely disturbing but wanted to find out if something like this "playing God" so to speak would be scientifically possible?

Answer

We put this question to Kat Arney.

Kat - Technically, it's completely possible because DNA is just DNA. It doesn't matter where it's come from. In the lab, you can put jellyfish genes into mice, you can put human genes into bacteria, you can put worm genes into yeast. It's all DNA. It's all the same kind of nuts and bolts. If you put a gene in that's kind of got the right bits and bobs, it will be expressed. That means it will be active and it will make a protein because that's what genes do. They make little recipes that cells use to make different proteins. Now, that's what genes do. The difficulty comes when you say, if you put certain genes into different species, would it give that species some new power? So for example say, if you put an olfactory receptor, something involved in smelling from a dog into a human, would a human be able to suddenly smell all these different things? The answer is probably no because one gene doesn't just give a big characteristic like that. So, one gene is not responsible for super accurate sight or the smelling ability of dogs, or the hearing ability of foxes or something like that.

Chris - It can make a person glow with a glowing green jellyfish gene, couldn't you? That would be good.

Kat - That's the thing. So, you could do one thing that would be down to one particular protein or a couple of proteins. So, you could put in something that made someone glow under UV light, this green fluorescent protein from jellyfish, which would be so cool in a night clubs. Just like "hands in the air! My hands are green." For example, they do that already with the genes that make proteins involved in spider silk. You can actually make goats that produce the spider silk proteins. So, I think if you're talking about a whole system, a smelling system, an olfactory system, jumping system, that's going to be very, very difficult to engineer. It's the same thing with these new genome engineering technologies. We're hearing about things like CRISPR which has been in the news a lot. You can tweak certain genes and that can affect specific proteins or specific pathways in a cell, but to engineer an entire system is going to be, I think very difficult if not, impossible.

Chris - But given an ideal world then Ginny, what would you have in your organism? What super ability would you clone in?

Ginny - I think some of the kind of animal's super senses would be really cool, so to be able to echolocate or see infrared so that you could see kind of heat signatures and things. I think that would be pretty awesome. It would stop you bumping into things when you got up to go into the loo in the night.

Chris - Yeah. The visual one is a good one I'd say because that's relatively easy to do because that goes along with Kat's point that you can only really do this for one thing that one gene could do. So, you could add a gene into your retina that gave you a colour pigment that was capable of seeing other things that we can't currently see. So, you could do this for infrared or possibly other colours that you can't currently see and you could extend the spectrum of things you could see. Even UV, you could see UV like bumblebees do. That would be quite good.

Ginny - That would be great. What about navigation like the way birds use magnetic signals from the earth to navigate? That will be so useful. I'm always getting lost.

Chris - Well, researchers have actually found out recently how they do that. There's a paper that just come out in the journal eLife where researchers have found using worms actually that the worms are sensitive to the earth's magnetic field. They did a very simple experiment. They injected the worms into some jelly in a tube which was vertical. So, the worms go in one direction when they're hungry and they go in the other direction when they're well-fed. What they did was to then get some worms from Australia which having studied worms from Bristol in the UK and of course in Australia, the earth's magnetic field is pointing in the opposite direction. When they repeated the experiment, the worms do the opposite behaviour. They're going the opposite direction. So then they set up a system where they could reverse the magnetic field of the earth for the worms by just creating an artificial magnetic field and they could flip around what the worms did. They then looked in the worms and found these, they're special neurons, nerve cells inside the worms which appear to do this job. When you look at them, they're a really weird shape because one end of the nerve cell has got this strange, rod-like appendage on it that looks just like an antenna that you would put above your house to pick up TV pictures, and it's oriented along the length of the worm, and they think, well, perhaps with a bit of iron in there to make it wiggle with the earth's magnetic field it could be how the worms are doing the detection because they're clearly sensitive to magnetism. So, they really do have their own in-built compass. So Ewen, what would you clone in?

Ewen - One thing that really appealed to me is regeneration of digits. So, if you broke an arm or you broke it right off, you could just cut it off and let a new one grow back on again. Chris - Because there are animals that do that. Aren't there, Kat? They're very good at regeneration.

Kat - Yeah, things like flatworms, salamanders, all those kind of things. There's a lot of interest in trying to switch those genes back on because obviously, you start life as a baby growing in the womb. You have to be able to grow all these stuff. But for some reason, a lot of animals lose that ability. So, there is a lot of interest in being able to reactivate those developmental pathways.

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