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Chinese scientists insert human gene into monkey brain


In a controversial study, scientists in China have inserted a gene involved in the development of the human brain in the genomes of monkeys.

After they inserted the gene, the team of scientists tested the monkeys to see if their brains worked better on cognitive tasks, than a control group of similar monkeys.

Of the 11 rhesus monkeys, five lived long enough to test their cognitive abilities in follow-up experiments.

According to the study, the transgenic monkeys had a better performance in the memory tests and in the reaction time tests compared to the group not edited by genes.

The study was published in the National Science Review, which details the insertion of the human MCPH1 gene in rhesus monkeys.

In a test, where the monkeys had to remember the color and shape of a stimulus on a screen, the result was positive.

The team wrote:

It should be noted that our preliminary cognitive test detected an improvement in short-term memory in the [transgenic] monkeys

Although the monkeys' brains did not differ in size from their counterparts in the control group, they did take longer to develop. The study suggested that the neuronal development and myelination of the monkey, in which the membranes develop around the nerve fibers to accelerate nerve impulse transmission, was delayed, in a process similar to that of human brains.

The researchers added:

A distinctive difference between humans and non-human primates is that humans require a much longer time to configure their neural networks during development, which greatly lengthens childhood, that is, the so-called "neoteny".

However, the research, carried out by the Kunming Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with scientists from the United States at the University of North Carolina, has been qualified ethically by other scientists.

Jacqueline Glover, bioethics at the University of Colorado, told IFLScience

The first ethical question refers to whether this research is scientific enough to justify the use of animals. Are research methods able to answer the questions that scientists ask? If not, that is the first difficult stop.

The second question concerns whether it is appropriate to use monkeys in particular. Can this research be done with alternatives that do not involve risks for non-human primates? Jim Sikela, a colleague at the University of Colorado, has pointed out that organoids are available (that is, cells modified in culture) from both humans and chimpanzees that mimic many of the molecular / cellular characteristics of the brain.

The groups are putting the human genes in the oregano of the chimpanzee's brain as an alternative to the use of living primates to obtain information about how the genes of the human brain work.

Others, however, were less worried. Larry Baum, a researcher at the Genomic Sciences Center at the University of Hong Kong, told MIT Technology Review "The genome of rhesus monkeys differs from ours in a small percentage, that is, millions of individual DNA bases that differ between humans and monkeys."

As the study only changed a small number of thousands of genes, Larry added: "You can decide for yourself if there is something to worry about."

The team that conducted the research believes that its findings can "provide important, and potentially unique, information on basic issues of what really makes human beings unique."

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Charlie Cocksedge

Charlie Cocksedge

Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with a master's degree in Creative Writing, where he learned to write in third person, before obtaining his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in places like The Guardian, PN Review and the paper mill.

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