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April 16, 2011 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Is a human-dolphin hybrid genetically possible?

Once again I am working on a near-future science-fiction story and want to rifle through the hive mind's collective knowledge base. The question I have is simple on the face of it: could there be such a thing as a human-dolphin hybrid? I am assuming something generated in a lab somewhere.

Caveat: we're talking river dolphins here, the pink beasts, Inia geoffrensis, living in the freshwater Amazon.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is the word "possible". The only hard limits I know are the laws of physics, and the concept doesn't violate the laws of physics.

On the other hand, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, and cetaceans tend to have 42-44 pairs. Generally speaking, you can't hybridize species with different numbers of chromosomes. (At the very least, they wouldn't be able to breed.)

But if genetic engineering really hits its stride, it might be possible to transplant human genes into a dolphin (or anything else). In limited ways that's already been done: there's a designer strain of E. Coli which produces human insulin, for example.

The resulting creature wouldn't be a "hybrid", though. It would be a genetically engineered "chimera".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:25 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Chimera" refers to organisms in which different cells have different DNA (even if they're the same species), not one in which some foreign DNA has been inserted.

If you're assuming Future Genetic Engineering, at least (say) 25 years in the future, an unlikely success by an unscrupulous lab, a human-dolphin mix of some kind wouldn't bother my suspension of disbelief. It's science fiction.

As Bwithh says: what do you want it to do? Splicing a few dolphin genes into a human or vise-versa is something that could be done today, but it wouldn't be dramatic. Creating human-intelligent river-dwelling people who can actually survive and reproduce is a level of genetic engineering that's a long, long way off, but there's no reason to believe it's impossible.
posted by hattifattener at 12:11 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I guess you're right about the word "chimera". But such a creature wouldn't be a "hybrid", either. A hybrid is a creature whose mother (source of the egg) is one species and whose father (source of the sperm or pollen) is a different species. And when it comes to dolphins and humans, that is not possible.

What word applies, then?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:26 PM on April 16, 2011

"Hybrid"? No. "Chimera"? Yes.

But really, whether or not you'd be able to tell by casual inspection is significantly open to question. For example, there are already researchers working on adding bovine genes to pigs to improve the quality of the latter's milk, hoping to reduce piglet mortality. But even if this were made to work, it's highly unlikely that even a pig farmer would be able to tell which pigs were chimeras and which weren't. The only real difference would be a slight but significant chemical change in their milk production.

If you're talking about making a human with dolphin-like skin or a tail, well, that's not how genes work. There isn't a gene for "tail", and genes aren't puzzle pieces that can be swapped in and out. So yes, the idea that we could create a human-dolphin transgenic chimera is pretty plausible--though generally disfavored by applicable laws and some schools of bioethics--but the idea that this would produce a biologically viable entity with more than trivial differences from the genetic baseline is far less so.
posted by valkyryn at 12:36 PM on April 16, 2011

In fiction, this is not really very new. A current example is the online comic strip "Freefall". The main character in it is named Florence Ambrose. She's a "Bowman's Wolf".

Dr. Bowman is a genius who came up with what amounts to an intelligence add-on. One version of it was genetically-created, and as a pilot project, to show feasibility, Bowman's team genetically engineered a small number of wolves to include that add-on. They made other changes, too, and as a result Florence can stand upright, and she can use her front paws as hands.

The resulting puppies were given out to various families to raise as pets. But as they developed, beginning to speak, beginning to stand upright, beginning to wear clothes, it seems the the relationship gradually changed to be more like "foster child". Florence talks about her "owner", the boy in her family, but you get a distinct feeling from her that he was more like an older brother. And you get the distinct feeling that Florence's foster parents were very loving, and that she had a very good upbringing. (She's a wonderful person.)

She ended up going to college and getting an advanced degree in engineering, and... well... it goes from there. It's been running for almost ten years, and a summary of the plotline isn't really relevant to this AskMe. The point was that the idea of major genetic modification of existing organisms for purposes of giving them human-level intelligence isn't at all new in the realm of science fiction.

But it doesn't require human genes as such to do all those things. Dr. Bowman's design was from scratch.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:52 PM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: I'd like to breed (as it were) for intelligence. So the chimera would be capable of language...dolphins doubtless already are, but I want it to be able to express complex ideas and even creativity. Also, I want it capable of developing some sort of civilization not based, as ours is, on physical technology.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:22 PM on April 16, 2011

Best answer: Well, we really have no idea what gives rise to intelligence, at a basic level. If I were writing this story, I'd posit that people had figured out what genes or gene networks gave rise to the recent changes in human intelligence (language etc), and figured out how to splice those into dolphins, but not figured out really how they work in enough detail to arbitrarily engineer them. The resulting animals are still dolphins in most ways but with human-like capability for language, multigenerational transmission of culture, the potential for complex civilization and technology, etc. Since we don't currently know how that works, there's no problem if your story's scientists discover that there happens to a nearly homologous setup in dolphins. (Dolphins are fairly closely related to us, in the grand scheme of things; but you'll need some handwaving to explain why it wasn't easier to experiment on cows etc— maybe dolphins' sonar and native intelligence meant that they were "almost there" already, or something.)

What word applies, then?

"Transgenic organism" does, but that's clumsy. Popular writing usually uses "hybrid", but I think scientists reserve that word for gene mixing done the old-fashioned way, within a species. Is there really no shorter term?

valkyryn, I don't know what you were intending to link to, but I don't think what you're describing is a chimera.

A current example is the online comic strip "Freefall"

Yes, though Freefall isn't very near-future. As you say, Florence's extra intelligence seems to be de novo— or maybe patterned on the pre-existing robot AIs, it's been a while since I read that strip— not copied directly from humans. Not sure if that's an important distinction to Guy_Inamonkeysuit's story.

If you want more SFnal background on this idea, I direct you to David Brin's Uplift series (starting with Sundiver) and Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality stories. That'll help you to avoid re-writing a story that someone else has already written. This Wikipedia page has some links to even further reading if you really feel like it.
posted by hattifattener at 2:32 PM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, I am a big Smith fan and have been for many years... just finished re-reading The Best of... edited by J.J. Pierce. Wonderful stuff. The Ballad of Lost C'Mell remains quite a moving story... If I could hit half the stylistic notes Smith does I'd be a happy writer.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2011

Was going to come in to suggest Brin's works as well, but I think you can skip Sundiver - it's boring, it's only loosely connected to the rest of the series, and most importantly, it doesn't feature dolphins. The second (Startide Rising, the best of the series) features them prominently, as do the 4th through 6th books.

I also wanted to suggest a Brin short story in which he fills in some of the backstory to his Uplift universe, Aficionado. It's not especially great, but it does discuss some of the earliest work on dolphin intelligence in this universe. And for some more "technical" details, Steve Jackson Games released an Uplift expansion for its GURPS role-playing game.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:22 PM on April 16, 2011

hattifattener has the best answers. We haven't taken transgenics to that level of complexity yet (we're not even close), but if it was going to be done, it would be achieved by inserting human genes into the dolphins and modifying/deleting their existing genes.

On the terminology side:
If we insert a gene, it's called transgenic.
If we knock out a gene, it's called a knock-out.
If we put a different gene in place of an existing gene, it's a called a knock-in.

The organisms you're describing would have to have so many changes these terms simply wouldn't suffice. It would be akin to calling the Large Hadron Collider a circle.
posted by kisch mokusch at 12:22 AM on April 17, 2011

Response by poster: Agreed -- hattifattner FTW. Thanks, folks!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:59 AM on April 17, 2011

Hybrids, technically speaker, are achieved through crossbreeding of different subspecies or very closely related species, so in that sense, no.

The next question is one of what it means to be human. There are different versions of otherwise similar proteins out there. Sometimes this is noticeable or causes a health issue, sometimes not.

The problem with this sort of thing is two fold: First, it isn't like there are a few simple changes you can make and get more intelligence or loyalty or the like. These are complex emergent properties. Hell, we can barely give you a few genetic correlations with autism.

Second, biology is a very delicate balancing act. For example, hemoglobin, which picks up oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide in your lungs, but does exactly the opposite out in your fingertips. And your hemoglobin has to work with your myoglobin. So, if you wanted to make hemoglobin more efficient, what would you change?

So for anyone to do this, they would have to either have a powerful way to predict the results of making lots of changes so they could pick the right ones, or create lots and lots of modified dolphins and accurately identify the smart ones.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2011

...Dolphins are fairly closely related to us, in the grand scheme of things...

Not so's you could notice it. We're both placental mammals, but that's about as close as it comes. Their line and our line diverged a looong time ago. We're both eutherians, but they're in "Laurasiatheria" and we're in "Euarchontoglires", which means we're more closely related to rabbits than to cetaceans, who are more closely related to bats than they are to us.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:24 AM on April 17, 2011

...Dolphins are fairly closely related to us, in the grand scheme of things...

Not so's you could notice it...

We put human genes into mice pretty easily nowadays. Despite 160 million years of divergence, the basic transcription machinery is pretty well conserved. Which means that mammals really are a lot more similar to each other than they might seem on the surface.

If we can get a chicken gene to be expressed by a protozoan (OVA by L.Major) then I think it's fair to say that putting human genes into river dolphins shouldn't be outside of our capabilities (though I'd love see the justification for that one on the ethics application form!).
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:30 PM on April 17, 2011

Chickens? Piffle. We put human genes into mice E. coli pretty easily nowadays since the late 70's / early 80's.

Despite this the E. coli broth continues to smell like a sewage treatment plant that has caught fire and fails to engage in any witty repartee.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:27 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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