Are you ready for genetically modified pets? From “dinosaur chickens” to super intelligent mice, the future of pets is very weird and super cool.
Huge things are going on in the world of animal genetics. Genetic engineering breakthroughs are so big they are almost earthquake-inducing. Soon, we will be able to create entirely new animals, many of which will be novelty exotic pets. Miniature dragons, once-extinct creatures, and lap ponies are all on the cards for us. Would you buy a tiny elephant or a hand-dragon if it was for sale? Before you say no, read on with an open mind.
Woolly Mammoth Resurrection
The Holy Grail for many gene scientists is to bring back a dinosaur, Jurassic Park style. For now, they are starting with more recent creatures, like woolly mammoths. A genome-editing technique, called CRISPR, is being used to modify DNA by cutting out genes and pasting in new ones. CRISPR is cheap and has great potential in human medicine.
A research project in northern Siberia called “Pleistocene Park” is using CRISPR technology to bring back the wooly mammoth. The goal is to re-introduce mammoth herds to the vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America as part of an effort to fight climate change. Large grazing animals, such as the wooly mammoth, compact and scrape away winter snow, allowing winter cold to penetrate deep into the ground. This in turn protects the permafrost which is crucial in trapping carbon gases deep beneath us. You can find out more about this fascinating project here.
While more recently-extinct animals make for great gene-resurrection practice, bringing back dinosaurs looks rather impossible. DNA has a half-life of around 521 years. It takes around 6.8 million years for every bond to be destroyed. But dinosaur bones are at least 65 million years old, so they can’t ever yield usable genetic information. Yes, even trapped in amber inside a mosquito stomach. Resurrection of the dinosaurs will probably never happen. However, there are a few scientists who think we could get close enough.
Palaeontologist Jack Horner has recently claimed that there could be a possibility of de-evolving a chicken to create a sort of dinosaur, a “chickenosaurus.” Remember that birds are thought to have evolved from dinosaurs. Horner is trying to genetically reverse-engineer chickens to look more like their Jurassic-period ancestor. These beasts had long tails, clawed fingers, and teeth. Other researchers have used this same technique to make bird embryos with snouts rather than beaks.
Breeding chickens so that they grow limbs and scales instead of wings and feathers is not that far-fetched. Horner claims he can make a dinosaur within a decade without ever having to use ancient dinosaur DNA. He just has to get evolution to run backwards.
Birds aren’t the only candidates available for this kind of gene manipulation. Take for example, the alligator. They are the evolutionary descendants of the theropod (the category of two-legged dinosaur that includes the T Rex). So, you could see a reverse-engineered T Rex in your lifetime. Look out for a chickenosaurus or a lizardosaurus in a pet store near you! (Teacup-sized, of course!).
Smart Helper Animals
Humans have long been superior to animals due to our intelligence. But what if we improved the intelligence of our pets via gene manipulation? In fact this is already possible. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology genetically engineered mice with a heightened capacity to learn. They wanted to see whether it helped the mice to learn faster. It did. When the genetically altered mice were given tasks to complete for a reward, they learned to solve the problem faster than the mice without the added gene.
Could we create genetically modified pets that could trot down to the corner shop for milk and bread? It could happen. And soon.
Once humans know how to make a unicorn or a griffin, someone, somewhere is going to bring it to life. In fact, this kind of gene-meddling isn’t even that expensive anymore. The process for genetically manipulating an embryo is simple enough now, that it could be done in a home lab for under €1,000. You could do it in a community bio-hacker space and be playing with a chickenosaurus in under a year.
Do we embrace these genetically modified pets that are on the horizon? Or do we fear their arrival? Our engineering, after all, can exceed our wisdom. Let’s remember the quote by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the first Jurassic Park film… “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Then again, we could have unicorns as pets. Maybe we should just go for it and imagine dragons.