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Scientists Create Tiny Albino Lizards, World's First Gene-Edited Mutant Reptiles

The lizards were created by researchers using CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing technique that has previously been used for the first genetically-engineered human embryo in the US.

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Updated:August 29, 2019, 5:32 PM IST
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Scientists Create Tiny Albino Lizards, World's First Gene-Edited Mutant Reptiles
An Albino Lizard. (AFP)
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Albino lizards roughly the size of index finger have become the world’s first-gene edited reptiles.

The lizards were created by researchers using CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing technique that has previously been used for the first genetically-engineered human embryo in the United States, and changing the DNA of mammals, fish, birds and amphibians.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria, “has generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community because it is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods.”

In most model systems, gene editing is performed by injecting CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing reagents into freshly fertilized eggs or single-cell zygotes. But because reptiles have an internal and unpredictable fertilization process, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique was thought to be impossible for use on lizards.

To overcome this hurdle, Doug Menke, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and his research team decided to inject the CRISPR reagents into the unfertilized eggs within the ovaries after noticing that the transparent membrane over the ovary allowed them to see all of the developing eggs, including which eggs were going to be ovulated and fertilized next.

"Because we are injecting unfertilized eggs, we thought that we would only be able to perform gene editing on the alleles inherited from the mother. Paternal DNA isn't in these unfertilized oocytes," Menke, the lead author of the study published in journal Cell Reports, said.

The scientists had to wait three months for the lizards to hatch, making the process “a bit like slow-motion gene editing.”

“But it turns out that when we did this procedure, about half of the mutant lizards that we generated had gene-editing events on the maternal allele and the paternal allele," Menke said.

No one has been able to do these sorts of manipulations in any reptile before, Menke said.

“There’s not a large community of developmental geneticists that are studying reptiles, so we’re hoping to tap into exciting functional biology that has been unexplored.”

Menke said that the researchers deliberately chose to make the lizards albino, primarily because they hope to use the reptiles as a model to study how the loss of tyrosinase albinism gene impacts retina development.

"Humans and other primates have a feature in the eye called the fovea, which is a pit-like structure in the retina that's critical for high-acuity vision. The fovea is absent in major model systems, but is present in anole lizards, as they rely on high-acuity vision to prey on insects," Menke said.

They now hope to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique in other animals.

"We never know where the next major insights are going to come from, and if we can't even study how genes work in a huge group of animals, then there's no way to know if we've explored everything there is to explore in the realm of gene function in animals," Menke said. "Each species undoubtedly has things to tell us, if we take the time to develop the methods to perform gene editing."

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