HOUSTON (FOX 26) - We're in the beginning of a genetic revolution and animals are at the forefront of it. Not only are animals helping scientists better understand our human genetics, there's a chance they could help save people's lives. This, as scientists keep making ground-breaking discoveries about our genes: Everything from how to screen and avoid diseases to how to choose certain traits before a baby is born. To learn all that, it takes a little help from our friends.
While reading "Hacking Darwin" by technology futurist Jamie Metzl, we learn that roundworms were studied and helped with some of this research!
"One of the best model organisms are these C. elegans roundworms, and the reason is they reproduce very quickly. They have a central nervous system, kind of like ours, but they're relatively simple. They're on the simple side of complex organisms, and they have been poked and prodded and genetically engineered by scientists, to learn more about how genetics function," explains Metzl.
He has been monitoring and studying the genetics technology boom. He says many other animals are helping us better understand human genes. Scientists are transforming genetic research by using a tool called CRISPR. This helps them snip and edit DNA strands, as though they're using a pair of scissors.
"Right now, for example, is a translucent lizard that was just created using CRISPR, but the application of the gene editing on animals is actually increasing extremely rapidly. You're in Texas, where there's a big cattle industry, so they are now in an experimental phase, using gene-edited cattle that don't have horns. They grow muscle much more quickly. There's an explosion of the application of genetic technologies on these animals," states Metzl.
While heart valves from pigs are already being used to help humans with valve problems, Metzl says now other organs in a pig, like a pancreas, could help soon.
"We're absolutely getting closer to that, and it's a really significant thing, and it's moving very, very quickly. We've already had in Texas, baboon hearts and they tried to put them in humans - they didn't really work very well," explains Metzl. However, he goes on to say that experiments are still moving in that direction, especially to help patients in need of a transplant.
Scientists are now studying how to insert a person's own DNA into an animal to grow an organ like a heart, liver, or pancreas, in that animal, to later be transplanted in the human patient, so it would be a perfect match.
I went out into our community to see how people feel about animals helping people. Everyone we spoke with said, as long as it's humane, they felt like it could be beneficial. Metzl concurs. "We need to respect animals and treat them well, but I'm also a humanist, and if I could save the life of a fellow human, I would certainly go a long way to do that," exclaims Metzl. He believes a lot of these possibilities may become reality in the next 10 to 20 years.