There can be no doubt that the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the genome are remarkable medical breakthroughs. With such information about how genetics works, we can trace the path of genetic diseases, and predict where they might occur. We can work on cures for these diseases and prevention. There are so many important medical uses of the genome that it has already led to significant advances by scientists working to enhance the fortunes of humanity.
And then, there are other scientists who just seem to be having fun with it. Splicing genes just to see what happens and what kind of Frankenstein-esque animals and plants they can create. And those are the ones we’re taking a look at in our Top 10 Weirdest Experiments with Nature.
10. Scorpion Cabbage
Cabbage isn’t the most appealing vegetable ever – it’s a cheap filler for uninspiring stews, the basis of bizarre diets and an Eastern European staple. So, how to make the humble cabbage even less enticing? How about lining it with scorpion venom? That’s what the Oxford Institute of Virology, England, have done as they created a cabbage that contained the venom as a “natural” pesticide. The Institute first ran tests back in 1994, when scientists sprayed scorpion venom onto a field of cabbages, but now they have gone one step further, and integrated the venom into the cabbage itself, albeit in a form that is not toxic to humans. It means a saving on pesticide, as it’s contained within the cells of the plant but also means that the pesticide goes into your system. But it’s friendly pesticide, so that’s OK, right?
If you want an example of scientists just doing things for a science-y kick, look no further than the GloFish. Genetically engineered to glow in the dark, they serve little purpose other than looking pretty. The advertising blurbs says “They are a brilliant addition to any home, office, or classroom and they are perfect for hobbyists and beginners alike” and they come in 6 exciting colors. But is it right to mess with a fish’s DNA just to brighten up a classroom?
The research apparently started with a noble aim in mind – the fish were engineered as pollution detectors, glowing helpfully whenever they came in contact with a pollutant. Creating the 21st century equivalent of coalmine canaries is questionable in itself, but then to apply this same gene-meddling to a commercial venture? It’s a bit bizarre. But they’ll sure brighten up your dentist’s office.
There’s more meddling with nature for money in this next entry – the Grapple. It looks like an apple, tastes like a grape. And if you think that’s odd, that’s because it is.
Apparently kids can’t stand the apple-y taste of those apples they’ve been carrying around in their lunchboxes all these years. They prefer grapes! But no, grapes are too easy to squash and they’re so small, and just downright wrong-looking. If only someone could fuse these two things so that kids could enjoy the crunch of an apple with the sweetness of a grape. Well, science is here to help and now you can! Moms love them because they’re so healthy and kids love them because…kids love weird stuff. A prime example of a product you never knew you needed.
7. Flavr Savr Tomato
And just to prove the point that nature really isn’t good enough, here’s the flavr savr tomato. The first genetically-engineered food to be approved by the FDA, it was meant to retain its flavor far better than an ordinary tomato. The tomato was put on sale in 1994 and enjoyed a brief popular spell before its makers, Calgene, decided that the costs involved in making them wasn’t worth it.
The reaction was mixed, but mostly unenthusiastic. The flavr savr may have had a longer shelf life, but the variety it was bred from meant it wasn’t particularly tasty to begin with. It was an interesting breakthrough but ultimately failed.
6. Super-fast Mice
Having had some close encounters with mice recently, I can testify that they are pretty fast little creatures. Definitely fast enough to nibble a hole in my Easter Egg and run away before I can wield a trap at them. So, I don’t see the need to make them any faster. But the researchers at Lausanne College obviously did, and produced super-mice that are faster, stronger and healthier than ever before. They could run twice as far and twice as fast as other mice and were more resistant to the cold.
The implications of this are a bit scary – if you can make a master-rodent-race, can you use the same technology to produce super-soldiers? And what if “unfriendly” nations also got hold of the technology? Probably best to stick to setting up little mazes for mice for now…
5. Cancer-fighting Eggs
Now here’s an application of genetic engineering that could make a huge, positive difference….but it’s still a bit odd. In 2007, Scientists from the Roslin Institute produced a breed of hen that laid eggs with cancer-fighting properties. The chickens had human genes added to their DNA and the result was that the whites of their eggs contained the medicinal proteins, which could then be separated back out again. The idea was welcomed by cancer charities, but six years on, it doesn’t seem to have caught on. Perhaps the idea of using another creature to give birth to medicine was just a bit too strange for the world at large? Either way, it seems like a worthwhile use of genetics.
4. Banana Vaccine
There’s more food/medicine fusion in this next entry, which is a banana laced with a Hepatitis B vaccine. Developed in 2007, which seems to be something of a vintage year for weird genetic experiments, it was intended for use in developing countries where facilities for sterilizing needles might not exist, making traditional vaccines unsafe. Instead, people would be offered a genetically modified banana, which had been grown from a tree injected with the Hepatitis B virus. That sounds much safer, doesn’t it?
The explanation goes something like this – when the sapling is injected with the virus, the genes from the virus become part of the sapling’s DNA, and grow bananas which contain the virus proteins, but not the infectious part. When someone eats the banana, their body produces antibodies against the virus, as it would with a normal vaccine. Again, the idea never seemed to catch on, and recent reports suggest that the plan had been abandoned, as it was too difficult to scale up.
3. Dolly the Sheep
Of course, no list of genetic freakishness would be complete without Dolly, the lovable sheep clone that hit the headlines in 1996. Dolly was not the first cloned animal, but she was the first mammal to have been cloned from an adult cell. A cursory knowledge of sci-fi tells you that the future will be full of cloned humans, and many saw this as the first step towards a nightmarish future where people were grown in laboratories.
That may still happen, but it seems that scientists are still ironing out the kinks in the procedure. As she was cloned from a 6-year-old, Dolly’s cells may have been prematurely aged, contributing to her death at the age of 6 (sheep normally live till 11 or 12). Not quite ready to unleash on humans yet then…!
2. Glow in the Dark Cats
Be warned – things are getting seriously strange from here on. If you thought that the fluorescent fish were a bit freaky, how about applying the same science to our furry feline friends? In what must have been some kind of drunken dare, scientists used luminescent jellyfish DNA to produce cats that glowed in the dark. I suppose it’s handy for people who often trip over their black cats on dark nights, but it seems somewhat cruel. Wouldn’t a glow-in-the-dark collar be cheaper and just as effective?
Apparently, there is a scientific application, as the luminescence helps trace the path of imported genes and so can be used to fight the cat version of AIDS. But it really does sound like something a bunch of scientists came up with when drunk, doesn’t it?
1. Cow People
And for our top entry – the Man Cow. It was inevitable that someone would start messing around with human DNA at some point, and maybe it was also predictable that it would be Chinese scientists that would do it. Calls to outlaw the freaky cow-people that were shaking their udders at all and sundry have been slightly exaggerated – all the scientists actually did was to splice human DNA into cows in order to make their milk more like human breastmilk. That’s acceptable, right?
Maybe it’s a noble cause, but the merging of humans and cows on a genetic level is nothing but disturbing. It will almost certainly lead to the aforementioned cow-people forming an army and trampling all the non-cow-people in their way. Or something like that. It certainly deserves its place as our number 1 weirdest experiment with nature.