Futurism is happening in a place you might never have heard of: Kumming, China. It’s the capital city of the Yunnan Province which lies in the country’s southwestern region.
There, in the backwater famed for its sunny skies and palm trees, scientists at a genomic research facility have been tinkering away for the past 10 years doing what many of us could fairly call Mad Science.
On March 27, 2019, the Beijing National Science Review published a report from Chinese researchers who announced they succeeded in adding a human brain gene that controls fetal growth to the genome of rhesus monkeys. Their stated objective was to learn more about how the human brain and intelligence develop, about which very little is understood today:
“Brain size and cognitive skills are the most dramatically changed traits in humans during evolution, and yet the genetic mechanisms underlying these human-specific changes remain elusive. Here, we 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.”
The brains in the transgenetic macaque monkeys developed more slowly than normal, imitating human brain growth – however, the overall size of the monkeys’ brains stayed the same. “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,” wrote the research team.
The altered macaques outperformed the “control group” of research monkeys that received no genetic modification at a memory test involving colors and block pictures which was displayed on a touch-screen fit inside the animal’s cage, suggesting that implanting a human genetic component to a lower-order primate does indeed make it smarter.
Lead geneticist Bing Su at Kunming Institute of Zoology defended the questionable ethics of experimenting on helpless monkeys in the study’s Abstract:
“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.”
In November 2013, female monkey twins named Mingming and Lingling were born “on the sprawling research campus of Kunming Biomedical International and its affiliated Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research. The macaques had been conceived via in vitro fertilization. Then scientists used a new method of DNA engineering known as CRISPR to modify the fertilized eggs by editing three different genes, and they were implanted into a surrogate macaque mother.”
The gamble that CRISPR could be targeted for specific genetic modifications in primates paid off when Mingming and Lingling were delivered completely healthy.
Scientists around the world agree that the ability to genetically engineer test primates (monkeys, generally speaking) would be very useful for research on brain disorders that are little understood today.
Kumming researchers acknowledge that “Human genes have been added to monkeys to study diseases and conditions such as autism, and mice have been modified with human cognition genes, including altered microcephalin,” but believe their study is the first to use transgenic monkeys to study “the genetic origins of the human brain.”
One problem with this line of research – adding a genetic part here and removing one there – is that the technology can be abused (weaponized) despite the best intentions of the scientific innovators.
Then, there are the ethical considerations. Westerners generally frown upon using live primates as test subjects these days. Not so in China, where eating some animals – or parts of them – even while they are still alive is part of the culture. In fact, steel yourself for this description of Raw alive monkey brain:
“Raw alive monkey brain is a special dish affordable only by very rich people and is possible to order it only in Guangdong and, once, in Hong Kong. The chef puts a live monkey beneath a table with its head poking up through a hole, the customers then eat its brains while it screams. This dish is very expensive. Sometimes customers that order this dish want to prove their richness and bravery, but many can’t swallow a single bite. The dish was banned in China, but it’s still possible to find it in Guangdong.”
The blatant disregard on the part of the Chinese experimenters for the potential for abuse and ethical considerations in splicing together human and lower-order-primate genetic components has been decried as reckless and ill-thought. James Sikela, a geneticist at the University of Colorado, spoke for many critics when he said:
“The use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take. It is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued.”
Indeed, what next? Will we be competing for jobs against not only AI humanoid robots but human-brained macaques?
One has to wonder where the totalitarian Chinese Communist government is planning to take this ability to alter primates at the core, genetic level?
China is a huge country with lots of gold, a robust economy, and an interest in world domination. Science will march on there, even as most Westerners sleep, oblivious to the controversial work going on there.