First, scientists in South Korea brought us dog cloning — a chance, or so it was initially described, to use cells from your sick, dying or even dead dog to create the exact same dog again, in healthy puppy form.
It was a bad idea.
Now, scientists in China are hard at work on an equally worrisome one.
Chinese researchers report they have created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass, through a process called “gene editing.”
Gene editing involves injecting embryos with a DNA snipping enzyme, Cas9, and a guide molecule that zeroes in on a particular stretch of DNA. The goal is to knock out the myostatin gene so a dog’s body can not produce any of the muscle-inhibiting protein that the gene manufactures.
The result, as they see it, is a Super Dog — useful to the police and military.
This is hardly the first time man has manipulated the species. We’ve been doing it for centuries by inbreeding them to create dogs that, while not necessarily healthier — and sometimes quite the opposite — better suit our needs and please our eyes.
But gene editing is, right up there with cloning, one of the more blatant, creepy and invasive routes man has taken.
And it prompts us to say, with more emotion than a scientist can probably understand: Dogs are already super, China. So leave them the hell alone.
To create one “super beagle,” the researchers injected more than 60 dog embryos. Less than half survived to birth. Of 27 puppies born, only two had the sought after disruption in their myostatin genes.
And in only one was the gene editing considered “complete,” said Liangxue Lai, a researcher at the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health.
Custom made, genetically engineered dogs will have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Lai is quoted as saying in the MIT Technology Review
Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy to be used in biomedical research.
South Korea’s dog cloners, in addition to cloning dogs for bereaved pet owners, are also creating dogs for the police and military, and dogs with diseases for research purposes.
Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. But, as the Review article points out, that wouldn’t stop others from moving to commercialize the gene-editing process.
A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.
And if gene editing follows the path of dog cloning, now available to dog owners for $100,000, its transition to marketplace will be swift an unregulated.
In addition to pigs, goats, rabbits, rats and monkeys have been engineered using gene editing in China, which considers the efforts a national scientific priority — much like South Korea did with dog cloning.
Lai’s team says the sole male dog they successfully produced, named Hercules, would pass the myostatin mutation on if he were to be bred.
“The favorable traits that result from gene editing can pass generation by generation,” says Lai.
“Favorable,” in this case, meaning what the researchers hoped for.
For the 33 embryos that didn’t survive, and perhaps for those that did, we’d hardly consider it favorable, or even necessary.
No dog lover should.
Edit your papers, scientists — not our dogs.
(Photo: Hercules, at left, and Tiangou, the world’s first gene-edited dogs, from MIT Technology Review)