Chimeras Aren't Just for Mythology and Games

A sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion.
Photo: La Granja, Spain, mid-18th century via Wikipedia
I first think of chimeras creatures from Greek mythology. One was a fire-breathing hybrid that was part lion, with the head of a goat and a tail that looked like a snake. But the term has come to mean any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, or even something non-animal made of very disparate parts. 

This summer, a lot of virtual explorers have been playing the video game “No Man’s Sky which seems to have knocked Pokemon Go out of the top of the news feed this month. This game allowed players to discover overnight 10 million different alien species - chimeras - in the game galaxy.

Okay, it's just a game, but what is intriguing about its design is that the company that built it (Hello Games) did not animate.create all the game's alien creatures. Their galaxy is populated by the computer program using a process called procedural generation.

Chimeras in No Man's Sky

The game uses "Superformula," an algorithm discovered by botanist Johan Gielis, that describes symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes (boulders, leaves, animal horns) and creates life forms. Those life forms are chimeras made of organs and parts that are remixed over and over by the algorithmic engine.

It is smart enough to consider what type of chimera would fit in the surrounding area, and then chooses a variety of types. Not unlike mythology, you may get a lion's body with the head of a rhino and the legs of a gazelle.

It has to also consider things like balance and weight and create an appropriate skeletal frame. You can't have that rhino head on a chipmunk body.

This idyllic space exploration and whimsical chimera creatures are interesting as a game, but they may begin to exist in the real world too.

A report from MIT's says that "Human-Animal Chimeras Are Gestating on U.S. Research Farms." It's not a project to create the chimeras of mythology, but an approach to generating human organs by growing them inside pigs or sheep.

There was a funding ban put in place in the U.S. for this type of research, but some research centers went ahead anyway trying to grow human tissue inside pigs and sheep with the goal of creating hearts, livers, or other organs needed for transplants.

This creates immediate ethical issues for some people. Adding human cells to animal embryos comes close to merging the species.

Have you ever read The Island of Doctor Moreau, the science fiction novel by H. G. Wells, or seen one of its film adaptations? Wells' "exercise in youthful blasphemy" is about a shipwrecked man who ends up on the island home of Doctor Moreau. The doctor creates human-like hybrid beings from animals. Wells was interested in themes including pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature.

This type of research was pushed into the news last September when the National Institutes of Health announced it would not support studies involving such “human-animal chimeras” until it had reviewed the scientific and social implications more closely.

But this month, the NIH said they plan to lift the moratorium on funding of certain controversial experiments that use human stem cells to create animal embryos that are partly human. The new policy permits scientists to get federal money to make embryos, known as chimeras, under certain carefully monitored conditions.

The ethical concerns remain, such as the possibility of  inadvertently (or intentionally?) creating animals that have partly human brains. That might endow them with some semblance of human consciousness or human thinking abilities.

What is a chimera developed human sperm and eggs and breed and produce human embryos or fetuses inside animals or hybrid creatures?

Yes, chimeras still sound like science fiction, but so much of science fiction has become in some form science fact.

No comments:

Post a Comment