Researchers in China are exploring the use of gene-editing technologies to create customized animals. Take for example research at the Shaanxi Provincial Engineering and Technology Research Center for Shaanbei Cashmere Goats where animals have been genetically-modified to have longer hair (i.e. more wool) and more muscles (i.e. meat). This was accomplished using the relatively new technology CRISPR-Cas9 developed in the United States that allows researchers to cut out a piece of DNA from embryos. Chinese scientists have also used the technology to make muscular beagles (image above) along with various genetic modifications of sheep, pigs, monkeys and other mammals.
There are of course several concerns regarding the use of this technology. One concern is that the modified DNA may be passed on to offspring. Of course gene editing does not always work so there may be many failures before creating a successfully transformed animal. According to a quote published in Scientific American from George Daley, Stem Cell Biologist at Harvard, “What is different about CRISPR is that the technology is vastly more efficient and so the possibility of it being practiced widely is that much more real. The ethical concerns are now upon us because the technology is real.” You may have noticed that private companies are already selling genetically-modified micro pigs for pets.
Another ethical concern is the potential use of this technology to genetically modify humans. In fact, much criticism was raised by a study in China in which researchers used CRISPR to delete a gene that is associated with beta-thalassemia, a blood disorder, in nonviable human embryos donated by a fertility clinic. Despite attempts on 85 embryos, the experiment failed. While researchers may explore the possibility of using the technology to correct genetic mutations, many are concerned about the possibility of using it to create so-called designer babies.