Planet of the Apes, anyone?
In a scientific mission to understand and unlock how human intelligence evolved –and continues to evolve– several ethical questions arise that our society may not be able to answer or understand.
According to reports, Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and guess what, they may be smarter.
The gene inserted into the brains of primates is said to be of great importance for human brain development and the treated monkeys subsequently showed human-like brain development, reports China Daily.
Chinese scientists have created several transgenic monkeys with additional copies of a human brain gene that can play an important role in the development of intelligence, according to MIT Technology Review, the journal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Surprisingly, the modified macaques achieved better results in memory tests, scientists have found.
“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” explained Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the new study.
Researchers have shown that the modified monkeys performed better at memory tests involving different colors and block pictures.
Scientists also noticed that their brains took longer to develop—as those of human children do.
The results of the experiment were described in the Beijing journal, National Science Review, and first reported by Chinese media.
But not everyone welcomed the experiment.
Scientists from around the globe said that the effort was reckless.
Researchers questioned the ethics behind genetically altering primates.
“The use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take,” explained James Sikela, a geneticist who is carrying out comparative studies among primates at the University of Colorado.
According to Sikela, this experiment may open the food for more severe, and extreme modifications in animals.
“It is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued,” he added.
But despite the fact that many experts will agree or disagree, the experiment was a success say scientists who wrote in their paper how they “successfully generated 11 transgenic rhesus monkeys (8 first-generation and 3 second-generation) carrying human copies of MCPH1, an important gene for brain development and brain evolution. Brain image and tissue section analyses indicated an altered pattern of neural cell differentiation, resulting in a delayed neuronal maturation and neural fiber myelination of the transgenic monkeys, similar to the known evolutionary change of developmental delay (neoteny) in humans.”
“Further brain transcriptome and tissue section analyses of major developmental stages showed a marked human-like expression delay of neuron-differentiation and synaptic signaling genes, providing a molecular explanation to the observed brain developmental delay of the transgenic monkeys. More importantly, the transgenic monkeys exhibited better short-term memory and shorter reaction time compared to the wild type controls in the delayed matching to sample task. The presented data represents the first attempt to experimentally interrogate the genetic basis of human brain origin using a transgenic monkey model, and it values the use of nonhuman primates in understanding human unique traits.”