Understanding ‘Chimeras’ And How They Might Save Lives

Senior Contributor


The subject of both increasing scrutiny and increasing controversy, “chimeras” are the latest difficult topic scientists are grappling with. But what are they? Why are they being developed? And how will it affect us in the long term?

Here’s what you need to know:

What Is A ‘Chimera?’

In scientific terms, a chimera is an animal with some DNA from another animal spliced into it. The chimeras you’re hearing so much about in the news are controversial because scientists are inserting human DNA into pigs, creating “pig-human” hybrids. But this isn’t some sort of cheesy SF movie scenario; in fact you’d likely be unable to tell a chimera from a typical pig by looking at it. Scientists have no interest in making a nightmare.

Why Are Chimeras Being Made?

The world is struggling with an organ problem. Organ transplant lists are growing constantly, but doctors can’t locate enough organs to transplant. So, the theory goes that if you splice human stem cells into pig DNA, after removing the genetic code that grows a specific organ, the piglet will have a human pancreas we can use for transplantation. This is, however, only a theory, so scientists at the University of California, Davis, are testing it to see if it’ll work.

Couldn’t The Pig Become A… Kind Of… Person?

Probably not, but the research team is taking no chances. The tests will terminate the pig embryos after 28 days to see if any human cells have been created. They’ve tested this before, without creating the “genetic niche” that removing the section of DNA causes, and found human cells, but they had to compete with pig cells. They’re also closely monitoring the brain; if, somehow, the embryos are developing human-like brains, they’ll be terminated immediately.

Are There Ethics Concerns?

There absolutely are, and everyone involved is struggling with them. Leaving aside for the moment the animal rights end of things — although needless to say they’re not fans — the idea of creating any sort of animal-human hybrid doesn’t sit well with most people, even the scientists conducting the study. Nobody longs for super-intelligent pigs or cats the size of toddlers roaming the Earth. Particularly because they would serve no useful scientific purpose, and the potential for suffering on the part of the animal is vast.

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