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Albino Lizard Is World's First Gene-Edited Reptile

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One of the lizards in the photograph is one of the world's first gene-edited reptiles. The team targeted the gene that affects the lizards' coloration, so the four hatchlings ended up albino.  ( Ashley M. Rasys and Hannah C. Schriever | Science Magazine )

In a first, a team of scientists have successfully altered the genes of reptiles. The four albino lizards are the world’s first gene-edited reptiles.

Gene Editing In Reptiles

In recent years, scientists have used gene-editing technology on plants, some animals, and even on insects. In fact, animals such as cows, chickens, and even fish have had their genes altered with the technology.

However, reptiles are rather skipped over when it comes to gene editing, and this is largely because of reptiles’ unusual reproductive systems. Now, for the first time, a team of scientists have successfully edited the genes of reptiles by editing the unfertilized, immature eggs of brown anole lizards using CRISPR-Cas9.

World's First Gene-Edited Reptiles

Typically, gene editing is achieved by injecting into a fertilized egg. However, this process is rather complicated with female anole lizards because they store the sperm in their oviducts for long periods and form the shells at the point of fertilization. This makes it difficult to time the introduction of CRISPR and to do so at the point of fertilization without damaging the embryo.

As a workaround to this dilemma, researchers injected the CRISPR into 146 immature eggs from 21 lizards and allowed the mating and breeding process to happen naturally. Specifically, the team targeted the gene that produces tyrosinase, which affects the lizards' color. This means that the lizards with successfully deactivated genes will hatch without the usual brown coloration.

In the end, four albino anole lizards were born out of the experiment. Interestingly, the team notes that both male and female genes have to be altered to be able to produce the coloration change. As such, they surmise that the CRISPR in the maternal genes stuck around long enough to also affect the paternal genes.

Implications

Apart from the fact that the scientists have done something that no one else has before, their research could be useful in terms of testing drugs and controlling invasive species.

For instance, studying these reptiles without pigments could also help them understand the biology of people who are born the same way. As such, being able to tweak the lizards’ genes could help in the testing and developing of drugs.

Furthermore, gene editing in reptiles, as was proven possible by the team, can help control the spread of invasive reptile species such as the Burmese pythons in Florida.

The study is pre-printed in bioRxiv.

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