The first genetically engineered organism was created in 1973. That was just bacteria and not something that most everyday people would be excited about, but it set a precedent. Genetic engineering has grown in leaps and bounds since then, usually for the benefit of mankind. Scientific illiteracy and propaganda have made people suspicious of GMOs and now companies proudly proclaim their products aren’t GMO even when a third of all Nobel science laureates have pleaded with governments to make use of them because GMO crops could save literally millions of lives every year.
So what’s holding us back? It could be these somewhat more bizarre uses of genetic engineering technology.
10. Bitcoin Mice
When we say plans for genetic engineering, keep in mind that doesn’t necessarily mean execution. No one has done what we’re about to describe yet. They just had the idea. And what idea is that? To encode Bitcoin into the DNA of a mouse.
The group behind the plan is actually just two guys and they don’t have funding, so don’t expect to see any high value crypto mice on the market anytime soon. The plan, however, is interesting, if nothing else.
The idea here is to store Bitcoin in a cold wallet like anyone might with their cryptocurrency. Then a digital key can be generated, which is also standard. However, things take a left turn at this point. The group’s plan would be to enlist the aid of a genetics firm to translate that key into a genetic ATGC sequence that can be written on DNA. That can then be inserted into a mouse so that a baby mouse can be born with the key encoded in its DNA. The genetics of the mouse will open the wallet and give access to the cryptocurrency therein.
According to BitMouseDAO, the group that conjured up the idea, the mouse wouldn’t be harmed. And the whole idea is more of an art project than a way to manipulate currency or how it’s used. But for added value, an image of the mouse as an NFT could also be included.
9. Muscle Dogs
Most genetic engineering is done in a fairly subdued way. One of the most famous cases involved making a strain of rice that was golden yellow and packed with vitamin A that could have saved millions of lives. By and large, yellow rice doesn’t look all that crazy though, and so the rice isn’t particularly shocking in terms of appearances. For that kind of genetic engineering, you need to look at Chinese muscle dogs.
Researchers edited out a certain gene in the dogs so that they’d develop to be more muscular. In fact, they have twice the muscle mass of normal dogs. And while that sounds like some real mad scientist stuff, it’s arguably for a beneficial purpose.
Dog anatomy and human anatomy are not all that dissimilar in some regards. Researchers were looking into how to prevent human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s, the kinds of conditions that lead to the wasting away of muscle. That said, the possibility of breeding dogs specifically with this mutation also exists which could make them more powerful hunters or runners. And because the mutation works the same in humans, the specific creation of more powerful human athletes could potentially also be a result.
8. Radiation Cats
The world at large is against genetically modifying things as simple as fruits and vegetables, so you can imagine the uproar if someone started genetically modifying cars, the beloved spokes animals of the internet itself. The idea has been proposed, however, and in the most sci-fi way imaginable.
One of the biggest drawbacks to our current use of nuclear power is the waste it produces. Nuclear waste is very radioactive and dangerous and is going to remain that way for generations. The people who have to deal with these problems have pondered what we can do to save not just people today from radiation, but future people.
The possibility exists that in 10,000 years or so, any language spoken today will be lost. Any knowledge of our nuclear waste storage facilities could be equally lost. How do you warn the people of tomorrow? Radiation cats.
The idea was proposed to create genetically modified cats that would change color when exposed to radiation. That way, in the future, our ancestors will be able to see a visual sign of danger. Presumably the story of what a radiation cat was would somehow be passed down generationally to make the phenomenon something more than a cool trick.
7. Anti-Cancer Beer
Have you ever heard that drinking red wine can be good for you? This benefit was attributed to a compound found in red grape skins called resveratrol. Resveratrol was shown to be an antioxidant in lab conditions. However, its link to cancer prevention in humans was never really established. That didn’t stop a lot of media stories about the potential after the lab link was established. Enough that some people wanted to look into genetically engineering beer to also have resveratrol in it.
A team from Rice University was cooking up a plan to use resveratrol enriched yeast to brew beer back in 2008. They even entered the beer in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition that year and won the gold medal. Most of the students involved in the project weren’t even old enough to legally drink the beer that they were creating.
6. Dinosaur Snout Chickens
When was the first time you heard that chickens are actually dinosaurs? This was a popular headline back in 2015. But the real link started making the media rounds back in 2007. So we’ve all had a good bit of time to adjust to the idea that chickens and dinosaurs are pretty closely related.
Science took things one step further in 2017 when they decided to see if they could turn a chicken back into a dinosaur. A little genetic engineering was needed to determine how a dinosaur face evolved into a beak, and then efforts were put into switching those genes off again so that a beak could turn back into a dinosaur snout. Research had been going for some years towards this goal, and a team at Yale had altered chicken embryos to basically reverse engineer a dinosaur face. The chickens were never taken beyond the embryonic state, so no dino-chickens were actually running around.
The researchers have gained insight into the evolutionary process, as was the goal. Conceivably, however, this research could also be used towards the goal of engineering future dinosaur-like animals, although such research would widely be considered unethical.
5. Daddy Short Legs
There are over 45,000 species of spiders in the world and most of us can only recognize a few by name. Of those, the Daddy Long Legs has to be one of the most famous. But odds are no one would recognize the genetically altered version made at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This new version was missing the hallmark of the species and instead had little stub legs, so they called it a Daddy Short Legs. The team were able to identify and switch off a pair of genes related to leg development in the spiders. This helped gain insight into the evolutionary process that gave the spiders long legs in the first place. Now if you want to know why that’s important, well, that’s just a science thing. Scientists like to know why things happen the way they do.
4. Vaccine Bananas
These last few years have really brought vaccines to the forefront of people’s mind around the world. But have you ever wondered why vaccines are almost always distributed the same way? Sure, going to a pharmacy or hospital and getting an injection makes sense, but what if there was another way? For instance, what if we could eat a vaccine? What if we could genetically modify a banana to provide vaccination against a disease?
Anti-vaxxers would no doubt flip their lids at the concept, but vaccine bananas were actively pursued for a time. The idea stumbled, however, and maybe for reasons that aren’t readily apparent.
One of the big drawbacks was unreliability. Delivering specific doses and the stability of the antigens in a food suffered too many variables. Just look at the bananas in the store next time you go. Some are giant and some are small. Is the dose the same if they’re delivering vaccines? What if you eat a whole bunch, is it safe?
Other issues included immune tolerance, government regulations and good ol’ social resistance since people are already predisposed to mistrust GMOs.Still, the idea of using things like tomatoes to vaccinate against hepatitis B is still floated from time to time.
3. Safer Pig Poop
How worried are you about the chemical composition of pig poop? Canada struggled with this very issue, and in 2010, scientists there did something about it. The Enviropig was introduced to be a more environmentally friendly porker.
The genetically modified pigs were designed to produce less phosphorus when they pooped. The problem here is one most of us would never realize. All animals need phosphorus. It helps build cells and many other functions of life. Pigs get their phosphorus in feed but cannot digest phytate, a molecule made up chiefly of phosphorus. Farmers supplement an enzyme called phytase in their diets, which helps them digest it. But it’s inefficient and a lot of phosphorus gets excreted by pigs.
Phosphorus from pig feces builds up in the water supply, feeding algae and creating biological dead zones with no oxygen. So the Enviropig was modified to not need phytase and excrete 40% less phosphorus as a result. The end result is a pig that helps the environmentally friendly and saves money on feed supplements.
2. Spider Silk Goats
Spider silk is stronger than steel, though in practical terms there are a lot of limitations to what that statement means. Still, being able to manufacture spider silk would surely have practical uses, right? That’s what researchers thought when they genetically engineered goats to produce it. The silk was produced by incorporating silk-spinning genes into the goats so that silk could be harvested along with the goat’s milk.
There are potentially dozens of applications for large-scale production from medical to textile and military. But spiders are very hard to farm and they tend to kill each other. Goats are much easier. Nine years after Canadian scientists made the first two spider goats, and another facility was overseeing 20 of them. It’s still small scale, but it hasn’t gone away.
1. Cyborg Dragonfly
If you want to go all out with genetic engineering, why not throw cybernetics into the mix as well? That’s how you end up with a cyborg dragonfly drone that mixes a genetically engineered insect with machinery all in one place.
Real life drones are bulky, relatively speaking, when compared to insects. Scientists have tried to understand how something as small as an insect can have the energy to zip around at high speeds in such a small package when we can’t do the same with robotics. Tiny batteries are terribly inefficient.
The solution seems to be making an insect a robot. A dragonfly was modified with neurons in its spine to make it steerable. With a tiny computer backpack to gather data and also charge the tech with a solar panel, the dragonfly can be piloted by remote control as light sensors are used to send signals to its brain. The result is a tiny, living spy that could get into places few humans or drones could. Does it open the possibility of up-scaling the tech and controlling more complex animals? Maybe so.