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Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds.

Via:  bob-nelson  •  last year  •  21 comments

Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds.
Some are calling the Chinese experiment “an ethical nightmare.”

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T


Scientists in China have created a new kind of monkey . It’s got a human brain gene. And that just might make its intelligence a little bit more like ours.

That, in turn, makes its fate — and its very existence — very ethically fraught.

In a study published last month in Beijing’s National Science Review journal, researchers took human copies of the MCPH1 gene, which is believed to play an important role in our brain development, and introduced it into monkey embryos by means of a virus that carried the gene.

Of the 11 transgenic macaque monkeys they generated, six died. The five survivors went through a series of tests, including MRI brain scans and memory tests. It turned out they didn’t have bigger brains than a control group of macaques, but they did perform better on short-term memory tasks. Their brains also developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.

Although the sample size was very small, the scientists excitedly described the study as “the first attempt to experimentally interrogate the genetic basis of human brain origin using a transgenic monkey model.” In other words, part of the point of the study was to help tackle a question about evolution: How did we humans develop our unique brand of intelligence, which has allowed us to innovate in ways other primates can’t?

The Chinese researchers suspect the MCPH1 gene is part of the answer. But they’re not stopping there. One of them, Bing Su, a geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, told MIT Technology Review that he’s already testing other genes involved in brain evolution:

One that he has his eye on is SRGAP2C , a DNA variant that arose about two million years ago, just when Australopithecus was ceding the African savannah to early humans. That gene has been dubbed the “ humanity switch ” and the “ missing genetic link ” for its likely role in the emergence of human intelligence. Su says he’s been adding it to monkeys, but that it’s too soon to say what the results are.

Su has also had his eye on another human gene, FOXP2, which is believed to have graced us with our language abilities. Pondering the possibility of adding that gene to monkeys, Su told Nature in 2016 , “I don’t think the monkey will all of a sudden start speaking, but will have some behavioral change.” He would not be breaking any laws. (In the US, scientists have created human-animals hybrids in an attempt to grow human organs for medical transplants — for example, by injecting human cells into a pig embryo and a sheep embryo — but such studies are not eligible for public funding.)

Su’s prediction that his tinkering would cause behavioral change raises a slippery slope concern: If we deem it acceptable to make an animal slightly more human-like, we may end up normalizing that process and find ourselves generating animals that resemble humans to ever greater degrees.

Changing monkeys’ behavior and intelligence raises major ethical issues

If you make primates smarter and more human-like, you’re not doing them any favors — not least if you’re going to then keep them locked up in a lab. In the words of University of Colorado bioethicist Jacqueline Glover, “To humanize them is to cause harm. Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that can’t have a meaningful life in any context.”

In a 2010 paper titled “ The ethics of using transgenic non-human primates to study what makes us human ,” Glover and her co-authors wrote that it’s unethical to add human brain genes to apes (such as chimpanzees). Su told MIT Tech Review he agrees that’s out of bounds given how similar apes are to humans — after all, chimps and humans share a recent common ancestor and 98 percent of DNA .

But monkeys aren’t apes. The last time they shared an ancestor with us was 25 million years ago, which Su thinks changes the ethical calculus. “Although their genome is close to ours, there are also tens of millions of differences,” he said, adding that for monkeys to become meaningfully un-monkey-like would be “impossible by introducing only a few human genes.”

That kind of justification is abhorrent to Barbara J. King, author of How Animals Grieve and an emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary. In an email, she called Su’s experiment “an ethical nightmare,” writing: “More of the genetically altered monkeys — six — died than lived, so right off the bat we see that the procedure is often lethal. Regarding the five survivors, what kind of lives will they have going forward, altered as they are and confined to an experimental laboratory?”

original A macaque mother with her baby in Guiyang, China.Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

King also suggested a cost-benefit analysis of Su’s study does not shake out in his favor. “In the wild, macaques live in matrilines, centered around groups of related females with close social ties; they explore their world with intelligence and curiosity. What right do we have to subject these primates to grotesque procedures of this sort?” she wrote. “The costs are terribly high and the benefits to humanity approach zero; there’s growing recognition that animal models simply don’t work well to study complex human processes.”

Primates have often been used in studies aimed at understanding how various diseases develop and how we can treat them in humans. Yet it’s important to note that there’s a difference between giving a monkey a disease and giving a monkey more human-like intelligence. Obviously, if you inflict a disease on an animal, you’re causing that animal harm. But you are not changing the fundamental nature of what it means to be that animal.

Adding human brain genes to a monkey, however, stands to fundamentally change the way the monkey perceives and interacts with reality. So, even if you think it’s morally acceptable to experiment on monkeys in the name of better treating disease in humans, it’s still a leap from that to Su’s experiment. After all, the very premise of that experiment is that the monkeys may end up more human-like as a result of it.

Su is right to note that there are “tens of millions of differences” between humans and monkeys. But his transgenic study is definitionally aimed at eliminating a few of those differences. After how many eliminated differences does a monkey shade into a human being? There’s no clear answer to that question.

China is particularly hospitable to primate research

It’s hard to imagine a study like Su’s ever getting the green light in the US, where primate research has come under increasing scrutiny, thanks in part to the work of animal rights advocates. But China is much more open to this kind of research. The country has vast breeding facilities for monkeys, tens of thousands of which it exports each year.

This picture released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience shows five cloned macaques at a research institution in Shanghai.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to studying monkeys, a researcher gets much more bang for their buck in China, as the Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang reported last year :

A standard monkey in China costs about $1,500, compared to roughly $6,000 in the United States. The daily costs of food and care are an order of magnitude lower as well.
In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming , Shanghai , and Guangzhou , scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more.

Because of the relative ease of conducting primate research there, some researchers regularly travel from the US to China for scientific work on monkeys. As Zhang pointed out, researchers at Emory University recently collaborated with scientists in China who work on genetically modified monkeys. And Su’s study involved University of North Carolina computer scientist Martin Styner. Styner, who told MIT Tech Review that his participation was minimal, said he considered pulling his name from the study and has come to believe such research is not “a good direction.”

Although the US is not green-lighting studies like Su’s, American universities that collaborate with Chinese scientists on such studies may still be complicit in any ethical harm they cause.

Initial image: A one-month-old macaque monkey in China.  Barcroft Media via Getty Images


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Bob Nelson
1  seeder  Bob Nelson    last year
Su is right to note that there are “tens of millions of differences” between humans and monkeys. But his transgenic study is definitionally aimed at eliminating a few of those differences. After how many eliminated differences does a monkey shade into a human being? There’s no clear answer to that question.

Of course, this topic is fraught with questions of many, many natures: moral, ethical, sociological, ... even religious...

We should be discussing this a lot!

The only thing I am sure of is that this is going to happen. Trying to stop it is as foolish as Canute sweeping back the tide.

1.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Bob Nelson @1    last year

Did the Chinese name one of the monkeys "Ceasar" I wonder? Also reminds me of David Brin's "Uplift" series of books.

Trout Giggles
1.1.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.1    last year


Bob Nelson
1.1.2  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.1    last year
David Brin's "Uplift" series of books.

We have trouble accepting brown people. Would we accept porpoises?

The People's Fish, Still "Hand Of The Queen"
2  The People's Fish, Still "Hand Of The Queen"    last year

 If the animal is the test subject, it's a no for me.

Make monkeys smarter so they can realize how awful their lives are at the hands of man. Good seed.

Trout Giggles
3  Trout Giggles    last year

Some one needs to show "PLanet of the Apes" to Dr Su and stat!

4  CB     last year

I wish to know what you all think on this question: Will these monkeys have identity crises? And how can they be psych analyzed to determine it?

Trout Giggles
4.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  CB @4    last year

We need to get Dr Zera on the case

4.1.1  CB   replied to  Trout Giggles @4.1    last year

HA! I had to look that one up! Seriously, what is China after with all these shared gene experiments? Better humans? Different humans? Advances in the Chinese brain?

Perrie Halpern R.A.
4.1.2  Perrie Halpern R.A.  replied to  Trout Giggles @4.1    last year
We need to get Dr Zera on the case

I was pretty much thinking the same thing.

5  CB     last year

Is China the new 'front' on government-sponsored, "mad-scientism"? Will China be that rogue nation for gene research which shall not be spoken?

Dismayed Patriot
5.1  Dismayed Patriot  replied to  CB @5    last year
Is China the new 'front' on government-sponsored, "mad-scientism"?

Well if you watch any anime you know Japan will develop giant robots to fight the genetically created Chinese mutant beasts, so it's all good, no need to panic...

5.1.1  CB   replied to  Dismayed Patriot @5.1    last year

Nope. I never got the anime 'bug.'  Seriously, I bypass the stuff. Though, I have heard it is a powerful 'drug.'

The Magic Eight Ball
6  The Magic Eight Ball    last year
tinkering would cause behavioral change raises a slippery slope concern:

it is my feeling anytime one mucks about like that they will get highly aggressive and agitated results.

humans made a bee they hoped would collect more honey = they call it the killer bee now.

if god was just a normal alien genetic engineer and our dna was spliced with theirs?  = killer humans.

perhaps this is why we are so violent. but anyway. on to the monkeys...

tongue in cheek /  my bet is they will be highly aggressive, demand human rights, and vote democrat. what monkey can take a pass on free bananas?

cheers :)

7  Sunshine    last year

He is like the Dr. Mengele of monkeys


Raven Wing
7.1  Raven Wing  replied to  Sunshine @7    last year


Bob Nelson
7.2  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Sunshine @7    last year

Because he's trying to make smarter monkeys?

8  CB     last year

Actually, what I am really thinking (all along) is WHY?!

What kind of human being is this scientist and his cohorts to infect a creature with a human virus, literally?

8.1  Freefaller  replied to  CB @8    last year
what I am really thinking (all along) is WHY?!

To gain knowledge in my guess, an admirable pursuit imo.

What kind of human being is this scientist and his cohorts to infect a creature with a human virus, literally?

Using viruses to transmit genetic material is a well known medical process (it is after all exactly what viruses evolved to do).  In this case the virus is simply a harmless transport vehicle whose sole job is to bring the genetic material where it needs to go. 

8.1.1  CB   replied to  Freefaller @8.1    last year

I should have emphasized the human gene aspect more, Freefaller. Thanks for the info, nevertheless!

So what if the 'coding' does not happen in these experimental monkeys, but they grow up and have offspring,  what are the possibilities? I don't know. Just throwing it out there to see what comes 'in.'

8.1.2  Freefaller  replied to  CB @8.1.1    last year
what are the possibilities?

Observation, research and knowledge.  However I'm just an average Joe so applications and specifics are beyond me.


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