Do not edit your hamster

2 minute read

Gene snipping to modify social behaviour? What could possibly go wrong …

Those of us lucky enough to remember the 1980s may also recall a ground-breaking anarchic TV program called The Young Ones

Aficionados of the series, such as your correspondent, may also fondly remember that the very first episode featured a foul-mouthed pet hamster named Special Patrol Group who had a fondness for extreme violence. 

It’s taken a few decades and the magic of gene-hacking technology, but once again life has mirrored art. In this instance, a behaviour-modifying CRISPR experiment with hamsters that went a trifle pear-shaped.   

We have researchers at Georgia State University to thanks for this quite surprising turn of events. The boffins there had intended to make the cute little critters even more lovable by genetically tinkering with a receptor of vasopressin – a hormone associated with aggression, communication, and social bonding in both humans and hamsters. 

“We anticipated that if we eliminated vasopressin activity, we would reduce both aggression and social communication,” GSU neuroscience researcher H. Elliott Albers said in a statement. 

But what actually occurred was the exact opposite. The experiment supercharged all the worst instincts of what were previously fairly benign rodents and turned them into vicious little monsters. Whoops! 

Turns out, the researcher said, that neural receptors and the behaviours with which they’re associated might not be able to be turned on and off individually, and that attempts to do so might be “fraught”.  

The “counterintuitive findings” suggested the “biology behind social behaviour may be more complex than previously thought,” the gene-fiddlers thoughtfully added. 

As they say in the classics: “No shit, Sherlock.” 

If you see something that makes you want to headbutt a teddy bear, share the despair with  

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