CRISPR: Five weird projects pushing the boundaries of gene editing

CRISPR: Bring back the mammoth

If you’ve ever seen any of the Ice Age films, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Manny, the mammoth. About 3-4 million years ago, these magnificent animals roamed across the northern continents, foraging for grass and shrubs. With a fluffy fur coat, a thick layer of fat and incredibly small ears, they were designed for the cold.

Researchers estimate they disappeared about 10,000 years ago, but that may be about to change. A team from Harvard Medical School has attracted much attention for its grandiose idea of using CRISPR to transform Indian elephants into woolly mammoths. Correction: the goal is not to create a mammoth (which is actually impossible to do), but to develop a cold-resistant elephant. The idea is to find the genes for specific mammoth characteristics – like subcutaneous fat and thick hair – and transfer them to the Asian elephant.

Idea-man George Church claims that a battalion of cold-loving elephants able to survive Siberian winters would prevent further loss of the permafrost. It may seem counterintuitive, but as these massive beasts trample the ice looking for food, they break the snow’s insulation and allow the Arctic chill to reach deep into the earth, keeping it frozen. This explanation may seem a little far-fetched, but one thing’s for sure: if this ever becomes a reality, the journey on board the Trans-Siberian Railway would be like entering a time machine back to the Pleistocene!

Incredibly, this is not the only project trying to bring back extinct species using CRISPR. In fact, the field has its own name: de-extinction. Another example involves the passenger pigeon, a once-common bird that became extinct in the late 19th century thanks to excessive hunting. Researchers at Revive and Restore, an organisation supporting various de-extinction projects, plan to tweak the genome of modern pigeons to make them more similar to the extinct passenger pigeon.crispr_revive_woolly_mammoth

CRISPR: Need a transplant? Head for the pig farm

Need a heart? Or a liver? Maybe a kidney? For years, doctors have dreamed of ways to reduce the long waiting list patients face to get a transplant. Growing organs in pigs was nothing more than a crazy idea until CRISPR brought it a little closer to reality.

Again from Church’s lab come extraordinary results that could change the future of medicine: they’ve managed to modify over 60 genes at once – more than ten times what had been previously achieved – to remove all pig retrovirus, which could trigger a rejection after a transplant, potentially making pigs’ organs suitable for transplantation into humans. Researchers at eGenesis, a biotech company founded by Church, are currently developing methods to make these organs as cheaply as possible.

CRISPR: What’s next?

Humans as strong as an ox or dogs as intelligent as humans? Maybe a plan to bring back the dodo? Even introducing genes to stop the spread of weeds? Who knows what could come out of the minds of researchers ‘savouring’ what CRISPR can offer and stretching the technique to the limit. Some of these and other examples may seem somewhat dubious science at first glance, but they all have a clear and specific reason behind them, including testing the technique, developing important new therapeutic approaches or even designing better conservation approaches.

READ NEXT: The Science Museum wants to resurrect an 88-year-old robot

Images: Katja Schulz, Rob Pongsajapan and Connie Ma used under Creative Commons

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