General

Chinese scientists have introduced human monkeys to human monkeys. Do you think they are smarter?

Human intelligence is one of the most important.inventions of evolution. This is the result of a sprint that began millions of years ago and led to an increase in brains and the emergence of new abilities. In the end, people straightened their backs, took a plow and created a civilization, while our primate cousins ​​remained on the trees. And so, scientists from southern China reported that they tried to reduce the evolutionary gap by creating several transgenic macaques with additional copies of the human gene, which is believed to play a role in the formation of human intelligence.

And no, they were not afraid to do it even after the situation with genetically modified twins.

What happens if you cross a monkey and a man?

“It was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human consciousness using the model of transgenic monkeys,” says Bing Soo, a geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, who led this work.

According to conclusions, modified monkeyscoped better with checking memory with color cards and dice, and their brains developed longer — like children’s humans. There was no difference in brain size. However, these experiments are not enough to uncover the secrets of the human mind or to generate the "planet of the monkeys."

In contrast, several Western scholars calledreckless experiments and said they doubt the ethics of creating genetically modified primates, given China’s technological advantage in this area.

"Using transgenic monkeys to studyhuman genes associated with brain evolution are a very risky way, ”says James Sikela, a geneticist who conducts comparative research on primates at the University of Colorado. He is concerned that the experiment demonstrates neglect of animals and will soon lead to more extreme modifications. “This is a classic slippery slope question, and the more research there is in this direction, the more acute the question will be,” he says.

Explore primates in Europe and the USA is becomingeverything is more complicated, but China quite successfully and hastily applies the newest tools for working with DNA to animals. This country was the first to create monkeys modified with CRISPR, and in January, the Chinese Institute announced that it had created half a dozen monkey clones with serious mental disorders.

“It is disturbing to develop this area in this way,” Sikela says.

Evolutionary history

Su, a researcher from the Kunming Institutezoology, specializes in the search for signs of "Darwinian selection" - that is, genes that are distributed because of their success. His search covered topics such as the adaptation of Himalayan yaks to high altitude and the evolution of human skin color in response to cold winters.

However, the biggest mystery of all - the mind. We know that the brains of our human ancestors grew rapidly in size and power. To find the genes that caused the change, scientists looked for differences between humans and chimpanzees, whose genes are about 98% similar to ours. The goal, according to Sikela, was to find "the jewels of our genome" —that is, the DNA that makes us unique.

For example, one popular candidate gene isThe name FOXP2, the “gene of the language,” has become known for its potential connection to human speech. One of the English families whose members inherited the abnormal version of this gene had problems with speech. Scientists from Tokyo and Berlin very soon brought this mutant gene to mice and listened with ultrasound microphones to see if their squeaks changed.

Soo was fascinated by another gene: MCPH1, or microcephalin. Not only did the sequence of this gene differ from humans to monkeys, children with microcephaline damage are born with tiny heads, that is, there is a connection with the brain. Together with his students, Su used calipers and wrenches to measure the heads of 867 Chinese men and women and see if the results could be explained by differences in the gene.

By 2010, however, Soo saw a chance to holdpotentially more accurate experiment: adding a human microcephaline gene to a monkey. By that time, China began to apply the latest genetic tools on its large brood of monkeys, which made the country a mecca for foreign scientists who needed monkeys for experiments.

To create modified animals, soo andPrimate Biomedical Research Laboratories in Yunnan monkey embryos exposed to the virus with a human version of microcephalin. It turned out 11 monkeys, 5 of which survived and provided brains for measurements. Each of these monkeys had from two to nine copies of the human gene in the body.

Su monkeys raised a number of unusual questions aboutanimal rights. In 2010, Sikela and three of his colleagues wrote an article “The Ethics of Using Non-Humans Transgenic Primates to Study What Makes Us People,” which concluded that human brain genes should never be introduced to monkeys like chimpanzees, because they are too much like us. Where will they live and what will they do? You should not create a creature that does not get a normal life in any context. "

In e-mail, Su says he agreesbecause monkeys are so close to people that their brains should not be changed. But the last common ancestor of monkeys and humans was 25 million years ago. For soo is an argument. “Although their genome is close to ours, there are also tens of millions of differences,” he says. He does not think that monkeys will become something more than monkeys. "It is impossible to do this by introducing several human genes."

Smart monkeys

Judging by their experiments, the Chinese teamdid expect their transgenic monkeys to have improved intelligence and an enlarged brain. That's why they put creatures in MRI machines for measuring white matter and guided them through computerized memory tests. According to their report, transgenic monkeys did not have an enlarged brain, but they coped better with a short memory test, and the team noted that.

Some scholars believe that ChineseThe experiment did not give any new information. They include Martin Steiner, a computer scientist from the University of North Carolina, and an MRI specialist. He notes that there were several aspects to this study that would not allow it to be implemented in the USA. Questions were also raised about whether animals were properly cared for.

And after what he sees, Steiner says that he doesn’tawaits further research in the evolution of transgenic monkeys. “I don’t think this is a good direction,” he says. “We created this animal that is different from others. When we conduct experiments, we should be perfectly aware that we are trying to understand why, that we are helping society — but this is not the case. ” One of the problems is that genetically modified monkeys are expensive to create and care for. With only five modified monkeys, it is difficult to come to clear conclusions about whether they really differ from ordinary monkeys in terms of brain size or memory skills. “They are trying to understand the development of the brain. And I don't think they will succeed. "

Su himself says that it is too early to talk about the results. What do you think? Tell us in our chat in Telegram.