Chinese Scientists Have Put Human Brain Genes in Monkeys—And Yes, They May Be Smarter

Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review, April 10, 2019

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Now scientists in southern China report that they’ve tried to narrow the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

The experiments, described on March 27 in a Beijing journal, National Science Review, and first reported by Chinese media, remain far from pinpointing the secrets of the human mind or leading to an uprising of brainy primates.

Instead, several Western scientists, including one who collaborated on the effort, called the experiments reckless and said they questioned the ethics of genetically modifying primates, an area where China has seized a technological edge.

“The use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take,” says James Sikela, a geneticist who carries out comparative studies among primates at the University of Colorado. He is concerned that the experiment shows disregard for the animals and will soon lead to more extreme modifications. “It is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued,” he says.

Research using primates is increasingly difficult in Europe and the US, but China has rushed to apply the latest high-tech DNA tools to the animals. The country was first to create monkeys altered with the gene-editing tool CRISPR, and this January a Chinese institute announced it had produced a half-dozen clones of a monkey with a severe mental disturbance.

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Evolution story

Su, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, specializes in searching for signs of “Darwinian selection”—that is, genes that have been spreading because they’re successful. His quest has spanned such topics as Himalayan yaks’ adaptation to high altitude and the evolution of human skin color in response to cold winters.

{snip} The objective, says, Sikela, was to locate “the jewels of our genome”—that is, the DNA that makes us uniquely human.

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Su was fascinated by a different gene: MCPH1, or microcephalin. Not only did the gene’s sequence differ between humans and apes, but babies with damage to microcephalin are born with tiny heads, providing a link to brain size. With his students, Su once used calipers and head spanners to the measure the heads of 867 Chinese men and women to see if the results could be explained by differences in the gene.

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To create the animals, Su and collaborators at the Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research exposed monkey embryos to a virus carrying the human version of microcephalin. They generated 11 monkeys, five of which survived to take part in a battery of brain measurements. Those monkeys each have between two and nine copies of the human gene in their bodies.

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“You just go to the Planet of the Apes immediately in the popular imagination,” says Jacqueline Glover, a University of Colorado bioethicist who was one of the authors. “To humanize them is to cause harm. Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that can’t have a meaningful life in any context.”

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Smart monkey?

Judging by their experiments, the Chinese team did expect that their transgenic monkeys could end up with increased intelligence and brain size. That is why they put the creatures inside MRI machines to measure their white matter and gave them computerized memory tests. According to their report, the transgenic monkeys didn’t have larger brains, but they did better on a short-term memory quiz, a finding the team considers remarkable.

Several scientists think the Chinese experiment didn’t yield much new information. One of them is Martin Styner, a University of North Carolina computer scientist and specialist in MRI who is listed among the coauthors of the Chinese report. {snip}

“There are a bunch of aspects of this study that you could not do in the US,” says Styner. “It raised issues about the type of research and whether the animals were properly cared for.”

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