Macaques in China are the first primates born with genomes engineered by precision gene-targeting methods.
Researchers at Nanjing Medical University and Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research in Kunming, China, have created genetically modified monkeys using a new method of DNA engineering known as Crispr. The infant macaques show that targeted genome editing is feasible in primates—a potential boon for scientists studying complex diseases, including neurological ones, and an advance that suggests that the method could one day work in humans. The work was reported in the journal Cell on Thursday.
Scientists have previously used the new genome-editing technique to delete, insert, and modify DNA in human cells and other animal cells grown in petri dishes. The method has also been used to create gene modifications in whole animals such as mice, rats, and zebrafish. The new study shows for the first time that Crispr can create viable primates with genomes modified at specific targeted genes.
The Chinese researchers injected single-cell macaque embryos with RNAs to guide the genome-editing process. The team modified three genes in the monkeys: one that regulates metabolism, another that regulates immune cell development and a third that regulates stem cells and sex determination, says study coauthor Wezhi Ji, a researcher at the Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research. The researchers found that the genome-editing tools created multiple changes in their target genes at different stages of embryonic development. The infant monkeys are too young for the team to yet determine if the genetic changes have an effect on physiology or behavior, says Ji. But, he adds, “data from this species should be very useful for curing human disease and improving human health.”
Researchers have previously created a handful of transgenic monkeys, such as a rhesus macaque that produces the disease-causing version of the Huntington’s gene. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta created this avatar of human disease by injecting a virus into macaque eggs. The virus delivered a disease-version of the human Huntington’s gene into a random location in the monkey’s genome.