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The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.
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. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”
Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. 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.
Genome editing refers to newly developed techniques that let scientists easily disable genes or rearrange their DNA letters. The method used to change the beagles, known as CRISPR-Cas9, is particularly inexpensive and precise.
Over the last decade, as DNA-sequencing technology has grown ever faster and cheaper, our understanding of the human genome has increased accordingly. Yet scientists have until recently remained largely ham-fisted when they’ve tried to directly modify genes in a living cell. Take sickle-cell anemia, for example. A debilitating and often deadly disease, it is caused by a mutation in just one of a patient’s three billion DNA base pairs. Even though this genetic error is simple and well studied, researchers are helpless to correct it and halt its devastating effects.
Now there is hope in the form of new genome-engineering tools, particularly one called CRISPR. This technology could allow researchers to perform microsurgery on genes, precisely and easily changing a DNA sequence at exact locations on a chromosome. Along with a technique called TALENs, invented several years ago, and a slightly older predecessor based on molecules called zinc finger nucleases, CRISPR could make gene therapies more broadly applicable, providing remedies for simple genetic disorders like sickle-cell anemia and eventually even leading to cures for more complex diseases involving multiple genes. Most conventional gene therapies crudely place new genetic material at a random location in the cell and can only add a gene. In contrast, CRISPR and the other new tools also give scientists a precise way to delete and edit specific bits of DNA—even by changing a single base pair. This means they can rewrite the human genome at will.
Some say that gene editing in embryos could have a bright future because it could eradicate devastating genetic diseases before a baby is born. Others say that such work crosses an ethical line: researchers warned in Nature2 in March that because the genetic changes to embryos, known as germline modification, are heritable, they could have an unpredictable effect on future generations. Researchers have also expressed concerns that any gene-editing research on human embryos could be a slippery slope towards unsafe or unethical uses of the technique.
The technique used by Huang’s team involves injecting embryos with the enzyme complex CRISPR/Cas9, which binds and splices DNA at specific locations. The complex can be programmed to target a problematic gene, which is then replaced or repaired by another molecule introduced at the same time. The system is well studied in human adult cells and in animal embryos. But there had been no published reports of its use in human embryos.
This can truly change everything with designer pets and humans. We can edit genes and help with certain diseases.