Human brains are about as complex as can be; even we ourselves don’t fully understand them. We’re the smartest “animal” to have ever lived on earth, as far as we know of, so naturally we would want to make crazy smart lab monkeys with human brain genes right? Well, the Kunming Institute of Zoology did. They created transgenic (“relating to or denoting an organism that contains genetic material into which DNA from an unrelated organism has been artificially introduced”) macaque monkeys with copies of human DNA suspected of assisting evolutionary growth in intelligence called microcephalin, or MCPH1. Researchers exposed macaque embryos to viruses containing the gene, which led to development never before seen in the brain of a monkey.
The Kunming Institute of Zoology is one of China’s first class institutes, located in Yunnan, China. Bing Su, the lead geneticist of the experiment said, “This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model.” Out of the 11 monkeys with whom they inserted human brain genes, six died. The survivors were then put through memory tests and MRI brain scans to determine what progress was made. While the monkeys’ brains were not larger, they did show an increase in aptitude toward the memory games, and scored higher on the memory games than normal monkeys would. Their brains also developed slower over time, similar to the human brain. Part of the reason the study took place was to find a better understanding of how humans left the trees, discovered fire, took up the plow, and birthed civilization.
Some, however, might question the ethics or consequences of such experiments. Su refused Discover’s request for comment, but said in the English-language daily newspaper China Daily, “Scientists agree that monkey models are at times irreplaceable for basic research, especially in studying human physiology, cognition, and disease.” In the end, it’s up to oneself to deem it ethical or not, but who knows what other results we could come up with given more time using monkeys.
For those worried about “Planet of the Monkeys,” you shouldn’t be. Monkeys and humans are about 25 million years apart from each other in the process of evolution. It would be science of impossible levels, as far as we know, to genetically modify monkeys to the point they begin to resemble humans. So for now, we’ll just stick with letting them play memory games.