Welcome to the last generation that uses or even understands the expression “dyed-in-the-wool.” Researchers in China using the latest technique in gene editing have created sheep with customized colors … the first time this has been done with animals larger than mice. Can plaid dogs, checkered cats and green-haired humans be far off?
Scientists at the Xinjiang Academy of Zootechnical Science in Urumqi, China, used CRISPR-Cas9 – the genome-modifying protein – to edit the ASIP gene (agouti signaling protein) in sheep. ASIP is associated with skin, hair, and eye color. Led by Liu Mingjun, from the state-run Xinjiang Animal Husbandry Research Institute, they created five lambs in unique non-sheep colors – two black-and-white like cows, two black-with-white-spots like dogs and one with a mottled brown-and-white pattern. Other than their wool colors, the lambs appear to be normal.
Liu points out that using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing allows for immediate results instead of the decades needed to alter animal characteristics using traditional selective breeding. This is not his first dip into the gene pool. Last year, his team created 38 sheep with enhanced muscles and wool-growing capabilities. These sheep are scheduled to be bred in the fall to determine if the genetic improvements will pass down to their offspring.
Made-to-order wool colored without dye has obvious commercial benefits. Will designer sheep lead to designer pets? Will they lead to designer humans – starting with parent-chosen hair color? Liu, a Chinese government scientist, had this to say:
The application to large animals indicates more strains of animals, not limited to livestock, will be developed via the approach, with different patterns not limited to coat colors.
That sounds like an evasive “yes.” With this development, China seems to be leading in the use of gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9. Although the wool experiment was done in one of China’s premier sheep-growing regions, it would be naïve to think they are not planning (or already conducting) experiments on other animals and possibly humans.
As gene editing moves beyond sheep, are we approaching a day when no species will ever again be called ‘dyed-in-the-wool’?
dyed–in–the–wool (adj) : unchanging