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Tag: genetics

Researchers say the hyper-friendliness of dogs results from gene mutation

Researchers say they have pinpointed a gene mutation that explains why dogs are so hyper-friendly — one they believe could have played a role in their domestication.

The scientists say they have isolated two genes, variations in which lead to the hyper-friendliness and tail-wagging sociability that most dogs exhibit.

When I read the headlines I had two reactions. First, I didn’t want to believe that the love dogs display resulted from something as stark sounding as a “mutation.” Second, I decided I wanted those genes, and those mutations, inside me — and all humans.

Imagine how much better a place the world would be if we all got so excited we nearly peed when we greeted each other, covered the faces of friends and strangers with licks, and had that unconditional love and loyalty that dogs possess.

Interestingly, though, similar variations in those same genes are already inside a small number of us. The genes at issue — GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 — are the same ones that have been associated with a human disease called Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS), which causes developmental disabilities and many other health issues.

The condition is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability, unusual facial features, cardiovascular problems and other health issues. But it also can often lead to affected individuals having highly outgoing, engaging personalities and extreme interest in other people.

Having written about people with developmental disabilities for eight years as a reporter, I met more than a few people like that — in institutions, group homes, and living with their families. They’d come up and hug a complete stranger. They’d follow me around, paying attention to everything I did and said. They seemed to indiscriminately love everybody. They were hard to say goodbye to.

I didn’t know it was a result of their Williams-Beuren syndrome, or that there even was a Williams-Beuren syndrome (this was the 1980’s), just that they possessed an innocence and trust uncommon in our species. I can’t remember if, at the time, I saw that behavior as “dog-like.”

But some researchers did.

vonholdtBridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary geneticist at Princeton University, and Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University, met three years ago and started talking about dogs.

In an earlier study, vonHoldt had identified a gene that’s mutated more often in dogs than wolves — one that possibly led to their domestication.

Together, Udell and vonHoldt decided to examine the social behavior of a group of dogs and a group of wolves and then analyze their DNA in the region that included the genes in question.

The study they co-authored, using a combination of genetic sequencing and behavioral tests, pinpointed a couple genetic differences that seem to track with friendliness.

Using 16 dogs and eight captive, socialized wolves, they were able to establish that the dogs showed a greater variation, or mutation, of those genes. Animals with these mutations appeared to pay more attention to the humans than those without, the researchers said.

“We find that hyper-sociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves,” the study concluded.

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The findings, in addition to providing new insights into the human disorder, could explain a large part of what led wolves to become domesticated, and how dogs evolved to become man’s best friend.

To learn more about the study, check out these reports from the
Los Angeles Times, Science and Princeton University.

(Photos: At top, Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead co-author, cuddles with her Old English Sheepdog, Marla, by Chris Fascenelli, Princeton University Office of Communications; at bottom, Lauren Brubaker, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors, interacts with a gray wolf, by Monty Sloan, via Princeton University Office of Communications)

Chinese lab produces what it says is the world’s first “superdog” clone

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Chinese scientists say they have produced a “superdog” clone — and that the technology will enable them to mass produce dogs that are extra strong and extra fast.

And, unless you are a fan of the doggy version of eugenics, you might find that extra scary.

The beagle, named Long Long, was born in May, becoming one of China’s first canine clones and, the scientist’s maintain, the world’s first genetically modified canine clone.

“This is a breakthrough, marking China as only the second country in the world to independently master dog-somatic clone technology, after South Korea,” said Lai Liangxue, a researcher of Guangzhou Institute of Biological Medicine and Health with the Chinese Academy of Science.

The beagle puppy was genetically engineered by deleting a gene called myostatin, giving him double the muscle mass of a normal beagle.

longlongHe was one of 27 puppies created at Sino Gene, a biotech company based in Beijing — all clones of a laboratory research dog named Apple, according to published reports.

The researchers created 65 embryos through cloning, and genetically modified all of them.

Only Long Long had his myostatin deleted.

By combining genetic editing and cloning, scientists say they can produce “superbreeds” that are stronger and faster.

“With this technology, by selecting a certain gene of the dog, we can breed an animal with more muscles, better sense of smell and stronger running ability, which is good for hunting and police applications,” Lai said.

He also suggested that the gene-editing technology could be commercialized and further applied to create dogs with diseases such as autism, Parkinson’s and diabetes, for use in medical research.

It’s just the latest chapter in dog cloning, which has a frightening history and, potentially, an even scarier future.

Efforts to clone dog began in the U.S., with early research at Texas A&M funded by backers who saw cloning people’s pets — often sick, dying or even dead — as a profitable business enterprise.

Canine cloning wasn’t achieved until a few years later at Seoul National University in South Korea when Snuppy, the world’s first canine clone, was born in 2005.

The service would be offered to pet owners by several businesses, only one of which remains, Sooam Bioengineering Research Institute, the laboratory of controversial South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk.

longlong2Twelve years would pass before China became the second country to clone dogs — and clone them with a twist.

Lai says his team will be able to “batch produce” customized dogs through cloning and gene-editing, which in addition to possible military and law enforcement uses, would create an endless supply of dogs for use in laboratories by medical researchers.

The researcher has worked for years on genetically modifying dogs. By mastering cloning, and combining it with his gene-editing, he’s able to endlessly duplicate any successes he achieves.

As with Dolly the sheep and Snuppy the dog, Lai’s achievement is seen as ominous by some.

“It’s true that the more and more animals that are genetically engineered using these techniques brings us closer to the possibility of genetic engineering of humans,” David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, told the Express..

“That does set us on the road to eugenics,” King added. “I am very concerned with what I’m seeing.”

Me, too. Dog cloning raises some significant animal welfare concerns. Technology, especially when coupled with greed or ego, tends to run amok. Eugenics is a nightmarish pursuit, as is its canine version. Creating diseased dogs for medical research is just plain wrong.

On top of all that, this latest twist being touted by the Chinese researchers fails to recognize one simple fact:

Dogs are already super.

(Photos: Sino Gene)

Nervous dog owners = nervous dogs

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Leave it to scientists to confirm what we already know, and to do so using words we don’t begin to understand.

Case in point: Nervous dogs often have nervous owners. This is not to say a nervous dog can’t have a cool as a cucumber (coolus cucumberus) owner. Nor is it to say some highly twitchy (humanus nervosa) folks can’t have calm dogs.

Only that, as anyone who visits a dog park knows, nervous owners tend to have nervous dog at the end of the leash.

The new study buttresses the concept that our dogs tend to take on our personalities, and that tension — while it may not actually “flow down the leash” — is picked up on by our dogs, and often reflected in their own behavior.

It looks at the chemistry behind that.

The study at the University of Vienna — published in the journal PLOS One “investigated dyadic psychobiological factors influencing intra-individual cortisol variability in response to different challenging situations by testing 132 owners and their dogs in a laboratory setting.”

You might understand that, or, you (like me) might not know spit — or that cortisol levels can be measured through it.

In the study, the researchers measured the levels of cortisol — and the variability of those levels — in the saliva of dogs and owners put through stressful situations.

In addition, they assessed the personality of both dog and human participants — ranging from highly sensitive and neurotic to secure and self confident.

“We calculated the individual coefficient of variance of cortisol (iCV = sd/mean*100) over the different test situations as a parameter representing individual variability of cortisol concentration,” the study’s authors wrote. “We hypothesized that high cortisol variability indicates efficient and adaptive coping and a balanced individual and dyadic social performance.”

For a more reader-friendly account of the study, check out Stanley Coren’s Psychology Today blog:

“You can think of people who are high in neuroticism as being sensitive and nervous while people who score low in neuroticism are secure and confident. In this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism had dogs with low variability in their cortisol. This suggests that dogs with highly neurotic owners are less able to deal with pressure and stress.”

“Conversely, dog owners who were more laid back and agreeable had calmer dogs. Those folks have greater variability in their cortisol response, suggesting that they are better able to cope with situations involving tension and strain.”

The study says the male dogs of female owners often have less variability in their cortisol responses and are often generally less sociable and less relaxed than male dogs belonging to male owners.

(That’s the study saying that females generally score higher on measures of anxiety and neuroticism — not me. I would be way too nervous to say that.)

“Owners behave differently because they are pessimistic or neurotic, and perhaps dogs read the emotions of their owners and think the world is more dangerous — so they are more reactive to it,” the study says. “It looks like people who are pessimistic have dogs which are worse at coping with stress than others.”

Of course, where a dog was before ending up with its owner can play a pretty big role, too.

I, for example, am the cool as a cucumber owner of a nervous dog. He came from a farm in Korea where he was being raised to become meat. That would tend to instill some nervousness in anyone.

Three months after being adopted by me, he still gets pretty nervous — around large groups, when hearing loud noises. I don’t know about his cortisol levels, but at these times he whimpers, sheds profusely — is there such a thing as projectile shedding? — and pees in inappropriate places, such as on my leg.

He is making great strides in every way, but Jinjja still needs to chill, and get less worked up by new situations.

Of all the factors that shape our dogs — genetics, environment, owners — time (and its cousin, patience) may be the most important ones of all.

So my game plan is to provide him with plenty of both, expose him to new settings and situations, and show him that not all the world is a dangerous place — all while being a mellow role model.

In other words, impossible as it might be, I’m going to have to become EVEN cooler.

How farming changed dogs — and us

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It’s no big surprise — given it’s what led them to befriend us in the first place — that dogs have been dining on our scraps since early in their domestication.

What’s more interesting is how dogs adapted to our junk food ways.

A team of researchers from France, Sweden and Romania has found evidence indicating that domesticated dogs underwent a genetic transformation, developing multiple copies of a gene that aids in the digestion of starch.

That’s the same thing we humans did, when we made the transition from a hunting to a farming society, consuming more starches and vegetable and less meat.

In their paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the team describes what they found out by conducting a DNA analysis of ancient dog teeth and other bones.

They conclude that, around 7000 years ago, domesticated dogs were eating so much wheat and millet they made extra copies of starch-digesting genes to help them cope.

starchIn other words, as we began consuming more starches, so too — via our leftovers — did the dogs that were compromising their wolfy ways to hang around with us.

That we and dogs can have our genes altered by the food we consume and the repeated behaviors we engage in, is kind of intriguing, and kind of scary — and it brings new credence to the old phrase “you are what you eat.”

Some of the first insights into how farming changed the canine genome came three years ago, according to Sciencemag.com

That’s when a team led by evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University in Sweden discovered that dogs have four to 30 copies of a gene called Amy2B, whereas wolves typically only have two.

The new study sought to get a better handle on when that happened.

Axelsson teamed up with Morgane Ollivier, a paleogeneticist at Ecole Normale Supéieure de Lyon in France and others, who extracted ancient DNA from the bones and teeth of 13 wolf and dog specimens collected from archaeological sites throughout Eurasia.

Four of the ancient dogs — from a 7000-year-old site in Romania and 5000-year-old sites in Turkey and France — had more than eight copies of Amy2B, Ollivier and his colleagues reported in Royal Society Open Science.

The findings rule out a modern origin for the increase in the number of Amy2B genes in dogs.

pastaDogs were likely domesticated more than 15,000 years ago, and likely continued eating mostly meat after that, as they became hunting companions to humans.

As humans turned to farming, the number of copies of Amy2B increased — first in us, then in dogs.

Being able to survive on whatever humans discarded likely enabled dogs to become widespread as people migrated across the globe, the scientists say.

It’s food for thought — how what we eat, or other repeated practices, can lead, far down the road, to alterations in our DNA.

Might scientists discover, generations from now, for example, that we humans have developed a selfie-taking gene that won’t let us stop taking excessive photos of ourselves?

They’ll name it 02BME.

Dog clones: Now made in America

nubia2

Just as the earliest efforts to clone a dog in America didn’t make a huge splash, news-wise, neither did the recent birth — nearly 20 years later — of the first made-in-America canine clone.

ViaGen, a genetic preservation company in Texas, announced at the end of July that the first successful cloning of a dog in America had led to a birth, and that the Jack Russell terrier pup had been delivered to clients.

Chances are you haven’t read about it — because hardly anyone has written about it.

Including me — the guy who wrote that dog cloning book.

I received an email Monday containing the press release announcing the successful cloning. It came from Andrew Lavin, a public relations consultant in New York who handles publicity for ViaGen. It was dated Sept. 12 and included the photos of the clone, named Nubia, that you see here.

When I checked online to see what news coverage the announcement had received, I found almost none — only an “article” in Pet Age magazine (actually a verbatim reprint of the company press release) in July.

When I called ViaGen’s Austin offices to clear up some of my confusion I was told the press release had originally been issued at the end of July, and they didn’t know why the one I received had been re-dated to Sept. 12.

When I asked why the announcement had not received greater news coverage, the person on the phone said only, “It was a soft press release.” She didn’t explain what that meant.

(I can only guess it means a press release sent to a limited few, vague and fuzzy on the details, and accompanied by a “we’re not going to answer any questions” attitude — one that is low-profile enough to not arouse any detractors, such as the many animal welfare organizations that frown on cloning pets, saying it is cruel to animals and exploits bereaved pet owners.)

When I asked ViaGen for more information about the cloning, I was told, “all media requests go through Andy,” meaning Andrew Lavin.

He eventually returned my call and answered my email, explaining that he had “updated” the original press release — and therefore changed the date on it.

He did seek answers to my questions and sent me ViaGen CEO Blake Russell’s responses to them. Russell sidestepped far more than he answered.

nubia1The owners of the clone are not being identified — apparently not even the state or country where they reside.

Their original dog is deceased, but they were able to have her cloned with tissue samples taken by her vet when she was spayed.

Asked where the other dogs that are needed to produce a successful clone came from — dogs in heat from whom egg cells are harvested, and female dogs who serve as surrogates — Russell said ViaGen Pets purchases oocytes from an unnamed provider and that “ViaGen Pets uses a production partner to supply the needed surrogates.”

Presumably, the merging of egg and donor cells and the surgeries necessary were performed at ViaGen labs in Texas.

Texas, by the way, is where the whole crazy idea got started — though it wasn’t pulled off until scientists in South Korea cloned the world’s first dog.

Here’s the condensed version:

Shortly after the birth of the world’s first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, in 1996, the wealthy founder of the University of Phoenix, John Sperling, decided that cloning his girlfriend’s dog, Missy, would make for a lovely gift.

He teamed up with his girlfriend’s son, Lou Hawthorne, to find a learning institution that would be interested in cloning the world’s first dog.

They chose Texas A&M University and funneled millions into the project.

For years, from 1998 to 2002, researchers there tried to clone a dog. They were able to clone the world’s first pig, cat, bull and goat, but dogs, they found, were extra difficult.

Hawthorne had high hopes of turning the cloning of pet dogs into a big business, and it was during this time that he launched Genetic Savings & Clone, a company that, like Viagen, stored the cells of pets whose owners thought they might someday want a clone.

Snuppy

Snuppy

The research project at Texas A&M, eventually, was dropped, but the quest was picked up by Seoul National University in South Korea, which produced the first dog clone, Snuppy, in 2005.

The thousands produced since then — most often for bereaved pet owners seeking a duplicate of the dog they lost — have all been made in South Korean laboratories.

At one point, two Korean companies were producing dog clones for customers, and one American company was selling dog cloning, too.

Bio Arts, a company Hawthorne started in hopes of cloning dogs on its own, ended up teaming up with one of the Korean companies, Sooam, led by former Seoul National University scientist Hwang Woo Suk, to provide clones to American customers.

Among the first of those shipped back to the U.S. was a clone of Missy, which he presented to his mother, Sperling’s girlfriend.

She noted the puppy was ill-behaved, and said she didn’t want it.

SONY DSC

Surgery at Sooam

Hawthorne later pulled out of the partnership with Sooam, citing, among other reasons, his concerns that accepted animal welfare protocols — or at least those accepted by most Western countries — weren’t being followed by the South Koreans.

“A cloned dog contributes to the happiness of a family but I do not think it is possible to do it without a huge amount of suffering to hundreds of others,” Hawthorne told The Mirror, which was reporting on the first dog cloning for a customer in the UK.

In an interview with the Mirror, Hawthorne referred to the vast numbers of dogs that it took — up to 80, he said — to clone just one. And he confirmed that, as my book reported, Korean cloning researchers borrowed dogs from dog farms — farms where dogs are raised for their meat — for the process.

Today, only one of the Korean companies is still in operation.

https://www.amazon.com/Dog-Inc-Uncanny-Inside-Cloning/dp/1583333916Another Korean company that paved the way for cloning pet dogs — and provided the first clones to an American customer — pulled out of cloning pet dogs in 2011, not long after the publication of my book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

ViaGen’s successful cloning of a dog lessens the likelihood of dog cloning fading away; instead it brings the process to American shores, and offers it at a much reduced price — $50,000 instead of the initial $150,000 the Korean companies charged.

ViaGen Pets says it is now the only American company offering pet cloning services — and says they are doing so “in full compliance with all U.S. regulatory standards and humane pet care practices.”

The are no federal laws against cloning dogs, or for that matter, humans, in the United States.

ViaGen,a long-time cloner of livestock, produced its first cloned cats for customers last year and it has been banking the cells of pets for more than a decade.

The company says the birth of Nubia will likely increase demand for cloning and genetic preservation of companion pet DNA.

screencapture-viagenpets-1473861354711

President Blake Russell said the company has already genetically preserved almost 1,000 pets and that there is a waiting list for the cloning procedure.

“The potential to have an identical twin to something that was very important and special in your life is an unprecedented opportunity and has brought a lot of joy to pet owners,” Russell says in the press release.

In addition to the cost of cloning, ViaGen charges a $1,600 fee and $150 a year to store tissue samples from pets whose owners may someday want to clone them.

The cloning procedure involves injecting cells harvested from the original dog into egg cells harvested from female dogs, a jolt of electricity to help them merge, and implanting the resulting embryo into a surrogate mother dog who carries the pup to birth.

ViaGen says a cloned puppy or kitten is “simply a genetic twin born at a later date, and should share many of the original’s attributes, including intelligence, temperament and appearance.”

The South Korean company guarantees only that the appearance will be identical, or nearly identical — but they often achieve that by producing multiple clones.

Many of dog cloning’s customers have come from the U.S. and the U.K. — and up to now they have been turning to Sooam Biotech to clone their dogs.

Most animal welfare organizations oppose the practice, pointing to the number of other dogs it takes to produce a clone, the intrusive procedures, the creation of surplus clones, and the sometimes nightmarish results. They also say pet cloning companies are exploiting the grief of bereaved pet owners.

There has been little outcry from them about the fact that dog cloning is now being done in America. Then again, it’s a development of which many people — possibly having missed that “soft” press release — aren’t aware.

In any case, it appears an American-born idea has finally — for better or worse — come to fruition in America.

(Photos of Nubia courtesy of ViaGen Pets; photos of Snuppy and a cloning underway at Sooam by John Woestendiek)

Without some diversity, English bulldogs could become a breed of the past

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Due to centuries of selective breeding, and the efforts of breeders to keep the breed “pure,” the English bulldog has become so inbred it cannot be returned to health without an infusion of new bloodlines, a genetic study says.

The study, appearing in the journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, reached the stark conclusion that health issues created by human manipulation of the breed could lead to its doom.

“We tried not to be judgmental in our paper. We just said there’s a problem here, and if you are going to decide to do something about it, this is what you’ve got to work with, said co-author Niels Pedersen of the University of California, Davis.

“If you want to re-build the breed, these are the building blocks you have, but they’re very few. So if you’re using the same old bricks, you’re not going to be able to build a new house.” told the BBC.

Pedersen and colleagues from the Center for Companion Animal Health at UC Davis examined the DNA of 102 registered English Bulldogs and found an alarmingly low level of diversity.

That, they say, is the result of a small initial pool of founding dogs, and “bottlenecks” caused by breeding for “desirable” traits like a big head and a short snout.

Those traits have led to many of the breed’s health problems — difficulty breathing, poor mobility and reproductive issues among them.

The researchers say efforts to return the breed to health by using existing bloodlines alone are “questionable.”

Introducing new bloodlines, from outside the breed, are likely the only solution, but many breeders are resistant to that idea.

“The fastest way to get genetic diversity is to outcross to a breed that looks similar but is genetically distinct… Trying to manipulate diversity from within a breed if it doesn’t have much anyway is really very difficult,” Pedersen said. “If all your dogs are highly related to one another, which ones are you going to pick?”

One possibility suggested by the researchers is the Olde English Bulldogge, a 1970s attempt by an American breeder to recreate the healthier working bulldog that existed in England during the early 1800s.

“The English bulldog has reached the point where popularity can no longer excuse the health problems that the average bulldog endures,” Pedersen said in a statement.

The features of today’s English bulldog are the result of hundreds of years of breeding, but changes to the breed’s traits — flatter face, shorter nose, stubbier legs, more skin folds — have become particularly rapid in recent decades, Pedersen said.

China creates “Super Dog” via gene editing

editeddogsFirst, 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)