If you could combine your genes with any animal in the world, which one would you choose? Would you want the power of a wolf? The agility of a cat? Or the wings of a bird?
Well, you’d better make your mind up quickly, because this technology is right around the corner. Borrowing traits from our neighbors in the animal kingdom might seem like a good way to advance our species, but it could also create a lot of problems.
For starters, we’ve seen how some humans treat people who are different. So you can imagine how they would react to the first human-animal hybrids.
On top of that, it would only be a matter of time before armed forces started to weaponize the hybrids, using them as a new kind of technology. But would it all be worth it if this breakthrough could save thousands of lives?
In the scientific community, human-animal hybrids are referred to as chimeras: organisms that contain genetic material from two or more sources. For years, humans have experimented with placing human cells into different animals such as rats, mice, and pigs, each with varying degrees of success.
These kinds of experiments used to be done without any government support or funding, but that all changed due to biologist named Hiromitsu Nakauchi. In 2019, he was approved by the Japanese government to grow human cells in animal embryos. The embryos can later be transplanted into surrogate animals and brought to term.
The intended goal is to develop a new way to approach organ transplantation for humans — to take out the need to rely on humans in the first place. The idea is that animals could safely act as hosts for human organs due to the human cells in the embryos. This concept is called xenotransplantation.
Right now, the plan is to make an animal embryo missing the gene required to make a specific organ. Human stem cells would be injected into the animal embryo to form a human-compatible replacement organ that could then be harvested and transplanted.
This would provide a massive relief for people in need of organ transplants. To put it in perspective, in the United States, there are 100,000 people on the organ transplant waitlist. Every year, 8,000 of them die due to no donor being available.
Despite the positive prospects of these experiments, some scientists and governments remain hesitant. One of their main concerns is avoiding any potential for human cells to contribute to the animal embryo’s brain.
They want to avoid creating an ethical dilemma. They don’t want animals to have human consciousness, or intellectualize any pain or suffering.
And that’s not the only ethical dilemma that comes along with all of this. If the technology progressed to the point of humans inheriting animal traits, we’d be reaching uncharted territories as a species.
We could see industries struggling to fulfill the requirements of a population with animal DNA, especially one that might have people living well past the age of 100. Food suppliers, pharmaceuticals and medical treatments, doctors and the insurance industry all would see significant changes. Could we start taking ourselves to the vet?
Then there’d be the risk of countries militarizing this idea. Imagine soldiers with wings flying around, with the ability to run 100 km/h (62 mph) when they hit the ground!
So maybe we’re better off not going too far down this route. Maybe we could learn to grow an endless supply of organs in a lab instead of in animals, and we could perform full-body transplants!
- “The uneasy truth about human-animal hybrids“. Brock Bastian, Melbourne University. 2019. bbc.com. Accessed October 29 2019.
- “The five: chimeras created by science”. 2019. The Guardian. Accessed October 29 2019.
- “Japan approves first human-animal embryo experiments”. David Cyranoski, 2019. nature.com. Accessed October 29 2019.
- “Why the moratorium on human-animal chimera research should not be lifted“. Moy, Alan. 2017. The Linacre Quarterly 84 (3): 226-231. SAGE Publications. doi:10.1080/00243639.2017.1293931.
- “Concise Review: Human‐Animal Neurological Chimeras: Humanized Animals or Human Cells in an Animal?” Crane, Andrew T., Joseph P. Voth, Francis X. Shen, and Walter C. Low. 2019. . STEM CELLS 37 (4): 444-452. Wiley. doi:10.1002/stem.2971.