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Scientists Put a Human Intelligence Gene Into a Monkey. Other Scientists are Concerned

Discover - Scientists adding human brain genes to monkeys — it’s the kind of thing you’d see in a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But Chinese researchers have done just that, improving the short-term memories of the monkeys in a study published in March in the Chinese journal National Science Review. While some experts downplayed the effects as minor, concerns linger over where the research may lead.

The goal of the work, led by geneticist Bing Su of Kunming Institute of Zoology, was to investigate how a gene linked to brain size, MCPH1, might contribute to the evolution of the organ in humans. All primates have some variation of this gene. However, compared with other primates, our brains are larger, more advanced and slower to develop; the researchers wondered whether differences that evolved in the human version of MCPH1 might explain our more complex brains.

Su and his team injected 11 rhesus macaque embryos with a virus carrying the human version of MCPH1. The brains of the transgenic monkeys — those with the human gene — developed at a slower pace, akin to that of a human, than those in transgene-free monkeys. And by the time they were 2 to 3 years old, the transgenic monkeys performed better and answered faster on short-term memory tests involving matching colors and shapes. However, there weren’t any differences in brain size or any other behaviors.

But the results aren’t what has the scientific community buzzing. Some individuals question the ethics of inserting a human brain gene into a monkey — an action Rebecca Walker, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina, argues could be the start of a slippery slope toward imbuing animals with humanlike intelligence. In a 2010 paper, James Sikela, a geneticist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and coauthors asked whether a humanized monkey would fit into its society, or would live in inhumane conditions due to its altered genes.

To justify the work, Su and his co- authors suggested that it could provide insights into neurodegenerative and social disorders — but they...READ MORE

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