Amid warnings from bioethicists of a “slippery slope,” scientists claim they now can use gene-editing techniques to create smarter monkeys by making their brains more humanlike.
The Business Recorder, citing the government-controlled China Daily, reported a team of Chinese scientists found after lab experiments that rhesus macaques “got smarter and had superior memories as compared to the unaltered monkeys.”
“Researchers edited the human version of a gene known as ‘MCPH1′ into the macaques. The gene made the monkeys’ brain develop along a more human-like timeline. The gene-hacked monkeys showed better reaction times and improved short-term memories in comparison to their unaltered peers, as per China Daily,” the report said.
But geneticist James Sikela told the MIT Technology Review the “use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take.”
“It is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued,” he said.
“While altering one gene to enhance memory in some macaques won’t throw Darwinism off-kilter – there’s no risk of a ‘Planet of the Apes’-style uprising, yet – it could teach us how humanity became so intelligent and gives us hints as to why.”
Britain’s Daily Star reported the warning of bioethicist Jacquleine Glover.
“To humanize them is to cause harm,” she wrote for MIT Technology Review. “Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that can’t have a meaningful life in any context.”
The Star said the study was done at Kunming Institute of Zoology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with expertise from staff at University of North Carolina.
“Our findings demonstrated that transgenic nonhuman primates (excluding ape species) have the potential to provide important – and potentially unique – insights into basic questions of what actually makes human unique,” the scientists wrote after their experiments.
They also noted they started work on 11 monkeys, but only five survived to the testing stage.
Larry Baum of Hong Kong University’s Center for Genomic Sciences scoffed at concerns, according to the MIT report.
“[There are] millions of individual DNA bases differing between humans and monkeys. This study changed a few of those in just one of about 20,000 genes. You can decide for yourself whether there is anything to worry about.”