Can we create a Unicorn by DNA manipulation?

Unicorn

What are transgenic animals?

With advancing technological approaches to genetic engineering, the term ‘transgenic animal’ is not difficult to define. An animal with a change in its nuclear or mitochondrial DNA (addition, substituition, or deletion of some portion of the animal’s genetic material or insertion of foreign DNA) is achieved through a deliberate human technological intervention is called a transgenic animal.  In other words, DNA manipulation in transgenic animals to express an extra (foreign) gene are done on purpose. Can we create Unicorns as transgenic animals? Read till the end to find out. 

 

DNA manipulation in transgenic animals

Image Source: shutterstock.com

Candidates for Transgenic Animals

Rats, Rabbits, Sheep, Pigs, Cows and Fish have been used as candidates for the production of transgenic animals.

The majority of DNA manipulation experiments are done on Mice. Studies suggest almost  95% of all transgenic animals are Mice on which experiments of DNA manipulation to express foreign genes are being conducted. The first transgenic monkey whose DNA was manipulated was Andi (a genetically modified Rhesus monkey).  

Andi Transgenic monkey

Image source: www.researchgate.net

Benefits of DNA manipulation in transgenic animals

a. Emphysema

Excessive cigarette smoking can lead to damage to the lung surface and alveolar walls thus reducing the lung capacity. This leads to emphysema, a disorder commonly seen in excessive chain smokers which shortens the breath.

A human protein termed ɑ-1-antitrypsin is essential to combat emphysema. Successful biotechnology experiments of DNA manipulation in transgenic animals was done by the introduction of a foreign gene that produces human protein ɑ-1-antitrypsin. This has led to the production of ɑ-1-antitrypsin protein for clinical purposes to treat emphysema patients.

Similar experiments are being conducted for the treatment of other diseases like Cystic fibrosis and Phenylketonuria (PKU).

b. Rosie: The transgenic cow

In 1997 Rosie, the first transgenic cow was created. Rosie produced a special type of milk, one that was more balanced for human babies than regular cow milk. Human breast milk is 25% rich in protein α-lactalbumin. This protein is essential to carry out major physiological functions in the human body. Cow milk is usually not very rich in this protein. DNA manipulations were done in the transgenic cow, Rosie and a foreign gene that produced α-lactalbumin was introduced. 

Rosie’s milk now had 2.4 grams of α-lactalbumin per litre of milk produced and hence was nutritionally more balanced for human babies than regular cow milk. Rosie died at the age of 22 on her farm.

c. Diseases

Transgenic animals have proved to be major tools for understanding diseases and also for investigating treatments for them. Foreign gene administration and DNA manipulation have helped create animals whose body physiology resembles the body physiology of human beings to serve as models for studying diseases and also experimenting with new cures for the same.

Diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, AIDS, arthritis are being studied and new treatments are being invented. DNA manipulation in transgenic animals is helping to study Covid-19 as well.

d. Vaccines

Before administering vaccines to human beings, to check if they produce the desirable immunity, they are first tested on transgenic animals. This not only helps us ensure that the required immunization takes place but also observe if there are any harmful effects of the vaccine. 

Usually, monkeys are used in the clinical trials of vaccines because they are close relatives of human beings. However harmful transgenic effects on monkeys can produce stronger damage to the ecosystem and hence require proper extensive approvals from government bodies. Therefore mice are the ones that are used, before testing the vaccines further on monkeys.

Mice have body physiology very close to human beings and hence the results of vaccines and drugs on mice are very reliable. Safety testing of the Polio vaccine was done on Transgenic Mice. If safety testing results of vaccines on mice are found to be very reliable, then in the future they can even replace monkeys.

e. Drugs and Chemical toxicity

Before releasing drugs in the market for the consumers they are first tested for their safety and effects. Transgenic animals help in this too. Drugs are tested on them to see if they produce the desired result. DNA of these animals are manipulated by a foreign gene to be sensitive to the harmful effects of this drug hence the toxicity of this drug is tested. These transgenic animals are more sensitive than non-transgenic animals. 

Similarly to study harmful and toxic effects of various chemicals and sometimes even radioactive substances transgenic animals are used.

f. Normal physiology and development

Transgenic animals can be designed in such a manner to allow the study of how genes are regulated. There are a lot of chemicals that are present in the human body whose effects on our body are unknown. In order to find out what physiological effect is being carried out by them, we use transgenic animals. For example, the study of the physiological effects of insulin-like growth factor was done this way. If the genes that alter the formation of this factor are introduced from other species and the biological effects are observed, information is obtained about the biological role of the factor in the body.

Is DNA manipulation in transgenic animals ethical?

DNA manipulation in transgenic animals

Image Source: whatinbiotechnology.org

We all are aware of the pop culture trope of the evil scientists that conducts some unethical experiments to cause troubles. Yeah, Amazing Spiderman you got it right. What are the ethical issues for transgenic animals? Why are we not conducting transgenic experiments without any rules and barriers by governments bodies?

  • First of all, animals don’t have a voice of their own and using them for experiments just for human development is not very ethical.
  • Socially, transgenic experiments and genetic engineering are not appreciated because of religious and cultural reasons.
  • When transgenic animals are released into the ecosystem, very serious harmful effects are frequently observed, not only to the ecosystem but also to other animals.
  • Complex animals have more unpredictable effects of DNA tampering because of their complex body physiology.
  • Large numbers of animals die because of these experiments.
  • Very large and unmitigated DNA manipulations with large foreign genes can create changes in the species that will eventually affect their evolution processes and hence the evolution processes of the whole ecosystem.
DNA

Image Source: wallpaperflare.com

Hence transgenic engineering and DNA manipulation are not to be taken casually. This is the reason that various countries form government bodies to make sure no unethical experiments are conducted. All countries unanimously agree not to conduct experiments on human embryos.

GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) is the Indian government body for the ethics and validity of GM research. 

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.  –Mahatma Gandhi

Practicality 

The question arises:

Can we create Unicorns as transgenic animals?

Well, the answer is no, it is not practically feasible. The foreign gene that can be introduced into the DNA of various animals also needs to express itself. DNA Tampering and the introduction of these genes are easy however expression is quite difficult. 

Creating new characteristics (like that of a horn of a Unicorn that exists in fiction) or incorporating very big changes like giving wings to horses (like that of a fictious winged unicorn) essentially won’t happen and are impractical. These are fiction characters for whom genes are not available in nature. 

Unicorn

Hope this article on DNA manipulation in transgenic animals was useful. Keep reading at MBD to find out more about transgenics and genetic engineering. 

Team MBD

What is DNA? Read here-  Did you know our DNA is 99.9% same? – My Biology Dictionary

 

 

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