CRISPR gene editing tool could theoretically create real-life dragons

Four years ago, a California researcher developed a gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9, and since then it has been featured in more than 400 research papers and has been used in efforts to address a number of different human conditions. But is that all that it’s capable of?

Hank T. Greely from the Stanford School of medicine and R. Alta Charo from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine don’t believe so. In a essay published last month in the American Journal of Bioethics, Greely and Charo explain that the method could resurrect extinct species—or perhaps even create beasts straight out of mythology and fantasy novels.

Yes, as BBC News and the International Business Times explain, do-it-yourselfers with rather vivid imaginations could, theoretically at least, use CRISPR/Cas9 to create real-life dragons or unicorns. While such possibilities undoubtedly seem far-fetched, Greely and Charo believe that using genome-editing tools to create fantastical creatures is within the realm of possibility.
While biological limitations and the laws of physics will help “prevent the creation of flying dragons or fire-breathing dragons,” the bioethicists explained that some experts could consider creating massive reptiles similar in nature to Asian or European dragons. Alternatively, scientists could use CRISPR to make “dwarf elephants, giant guinea pigs, or… a real unicorn.”

Dragons? Unicorns? That can’t happen… can it?

While some scientists are moving to ban the use of genetic editing tools due to potential threats to the human race, Greely and Charo explained that they aren’t necessarily against the use of the technique. Rather, they are looking for some type of regulatory guideline to determine how and when CRISPR/Cas9 can and cannot be used—and for what purposes.

“There are the possibilities of spectacles. Animals and plants not created for personal use but to be exhibited,” the authors wrote, according to BBC News. For instance, the method has already been used to create “GloFish” that shine under UV light and a genetically-modified rabbit that can glow in the dark. But dragons and unicorns… could such things really be possible?

Greely and Charo told the BBC that their suggestions were “somewhat tongue-in-cheek” but “not impossible,” while Dr. Sam Sternberg, formerly of the University of California’s Doudna Lab, said that the “massive changes” to a creature’s genetic code required to create something like a dragon suggest that actually doing so is “probably bordering on impossible.”

Were a scientist to acquire Komodo dragons and “quickly resolve the regulatory, stem cell, and assisted reproduction problems,” he or she “could start tinkering,” the paper’s authors explained. “But it would likely take a very long time before you could hope to get something that looked much like a dragon.”

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