The first genetically modified reptile is a finger-sized albino lizard

In recent years, researchers have successfully modified genes in chickens, pigs, cows, mice and even fish using Crispr technology.

Crispr, which was first patented in 2012, allows scientists to edit individual genes and modify DNA sequences inside cells. The tool can be used to create pest-resistant genetically modified crops, correct genetic defects like blindness, treat cancer, and breed malaria-free mosquitoes.

But reptiles like snakes, lizards, and crocodiles have been considered off the gene editing table due to the creatures’ unusual reproductive systems.

Not anymore.

A group of scientists from the University of Georgia managed to modify the genes of four brown anole lizards, which were born without the typical brown pigment from which the species takes its name.

The team first reported their results online in March, and the research was officially published in the journal Cell Reports Tuesday.

“The whole field of developmental genetics has left reptiles in the dust,” said Douglas Menke, study co-author and associate professor of genetics at the University of Georgia, told Science magazine in March.

These genetically modified lizards, however, change that.

albino lizard

One of the albino lizard hatchlings.

Doug Menke


“Needless to say, we were both excited about the addition to the lab,” Ashley Rasys, a graduate student in the University of Georgia’s Department of Cell Biology and lead author of the study, told Business Insider.

Lack of Pigment Showed Gene Editing Worked

Rasys and Menke chose to attempt genetic modifications on the brown anole lizard, or Anolis sagreidue to its small size, long breeding season, and the frequency with which females lay their eggs.

Scientists used Crispr technology to modify the females’ unfertilized eggs while they were still in the ovaries, then the animals mated and reproduced naturally.

Read more: Bill Gates says it would be a ‘tragedy’ to pass up controversial and revolutionary gene-editing technology

The team targeted a gene responsible for the enzyme tyrosinase, which affects the lizard’s color. If this gene were to be turned off, newborns would come out without pigment. So an albino lizard was a sure sign that the scientists’ genetic modification had worked.

Scientists modified the genes of 146 eggs from 21 lizards and waited three months for the lizards to hatch. Four of these eggs gave birth to albino reptiles.

Unfortunately, Rasys and Menke were in a meeting during the historic outbreak.

“Another member of our research group saw the newborn emerge from its egg,” Menke told Business Insider. “I received a text message with a photo of our first albino lizard while I was in a meeting. Needless to say, I excused myself from the meeting as soon as I could.”

Rasys also said he witnessed his first glimpse of the team’s “new arrival” through that same text message.

albino lizard

This albino Anolis sagrei lizard is the world’s first genetically modified reptile.

Hannah Schriever, courtesy of Ashley Rasys


Menke said the genetic editing produced both male and female lizards, about 2 inches in length (although more than half that length comes from the creatures’ long, skinny tails).

Although the lizards don’t have a name, each lizard is given a unique identifier to help scientists track them.

Genetically engineered lizards could help test drugs and control invasive reptiles

For Menke and Rasys, this achievement means more than just overcoming one of Crispr’s longstanding limitations.

“There’s a whole universe of unstudied biology in these animals,” Menke said. “Gene editing is the most direct way to explore gene function in these species.”

There are more than 10,000 described reptile species, and each one’s genome contains about 25,000 genes, he added.

Studying reptile genes can also improve scientists’ understanding of human biology. For example, people born without pigment, just like these anole lizards, also tend to have poor eyesight due to eye defects. The main cause of these vision problems is that the fovea (a cavity in the shape of a


depression

in the human eye that allows sharp, clear sight) is absent or underdeveloped in people with albinism, Menke said. But most animals used for genetic studies (like mice) do not have a fovea and therefore cannot be used to study foveal abnormalities.

But the lizards that Menke and Rasys’ team work with have fovea.

“Finally, we have an animal that we can use to understand human foveal defects,” Menke said.

The ability to modify lizard genes could therefore allow scientists to better identify therapeutic targets and test drugs in developing lizards, Rasys said.

albino lizard

The lizard is only 2 inches long and most of that length comes from its tail.

Hannah Schriever, courtesy of Ashley Rasys


Menke added that gene editing could also be used in animal conservation efforts. Invasive reptiles — especially those from Florida, like Burmese pythons in the Everglades — can harm native wildlife.

“There are some gene-editing approaches that could be used to help control some of these invasive reptile species,” Menke said.

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