The time may be fast approaching when unicorns and dragons are no longer mythical but a part of reality, according to two of the world's top geneticists.
Hank Greely of Stanford School of Medicine and Alta Charo from University of Wisconsin School of Medicine say it is very possible that in the future genetic engineering startups, biologists, and even artists could use the gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to "create fanciful organisms straight out of sci-fi”.
"Why should we not expect dwarf elephants, giant guinea pigs, or genetically tamed tigers?" they write in a report entitled “CRISPR Critters and CRISPR Cracks. Or dare we wonder, the billionaire who decides to give his 12-year-old daughter a real unicorn for her birthday?"
The pair say that such "frivolous" uses of the gene technique may fall through regulatory loopholes and have a greater impact on the environment than even human editing ever would.
"Humans are terrible laboratory animals. We don't follow instructions, we have long generation times, and we can hire lawyers. Human genome editing has a gauntlet of satiates, regulations, bureaucracies, and potentially courts, that it must run," they write. "Nontraditional gene-editing applications such as bringing back the mammoth or growing a psychedelic garden might face only limited scrutiny if they fall into the cracks. This essay is, in in essence, a plea—let's not ignore the nonhuman part of the biosphere."
Charo and Greely say genetically modified "GloFish" can already be purchased in the U.S. Artist Eduardo Kac has also used gene editing to create a green rabbit. And on Kickstarter, startups are advertising genetically altered flowers that change color.
"Basic physics will almost certainly combine with biological constraints to prevent the creation of flying dragons or fire-breathing dragons—but a very large reptile that looks at least somewhat like the European or Asian dragon, perhaps even with flappable if not flyable wings, could be someone's target of opportunity," they write.
The pair say they are not against gene editing techniques but are very concerned there is not a clear picture indication what government agencies will do to control the use of CRISPR/Cas9.
At present the Food and Drug Administration is deciding whether or not the Florida based company Oxitec should be allowed to continue using CRISPR/Cas9 to create a genetically modified mosquito that is resistant to carrying dengue fever. At present there are no regulations in place for CRISPR, as it is neither a "drug nor strictly a pesticide'.
"Overall, we have three agencies and multiple statutes coming into play to consider the downstream effects on the environment of engineering an entire population of mosquitoes," write Charo and Greely.
"This might be reassuring, but it also may mean there will be a morass each time a critter seems to fall through the cracks. We do agree that these possibilities should spark not only the imagination, but also critical policy and ethical analysis—to say nothing of ideas for some truly excellent science fiction."