Monkeys Genetically Modified to Help Study Autism

A team of scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, has genetically modified monkeys in order to create a better model for studying autism.

The team has introduced a human gene called MECP2, which people with autism symptoms have extra copies of, into the monkeys’ DNA. This caused the monkeys to display at least one symptom related to autism, like repetitive movements, decreased social interaction and anxiety. The monkeys have also been able to pass the gene and their autism-like behaviors to their offspring.

The creation of the first genetically modified monkeys occurred in 2010 when the MECP2 genes were attached to a dormant virus injected into the eggs of crab-eating macaque monkeys. Once the eggs were fertilized, they were implanted into female monkeys in order to develop – and they did – 8 modified monkeys with 1 to 7 copies of the MECP2 gene. A year later scientists found that the monkeys were showing at least one behavior linked to autism. However, this was not enough to say that the monkeys involved in the study were autism models.

The next breakthrough came with the next generation of genetically modified monkeys. They started showing asocial behavior when they were 11 months old, which proved that the MECP2 gene and autism symptoms were passed onto the second generation of macaques.

Zilong Qiu, a molecular biologist at the Institute of Neuroscience, and his team are now using brain-imaging technology on the monkeys to identify exactly where in the brain the MECP2 over expression happens. They plan to use CRISPR gene editing technique to remove extra copies of the gene to see if autism-like behaviors and symptoms will cease.

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