While mice and other common lab subjects aren’t direct analogues for humans, many vital discoveries have been made through animal testing. Beyond pharmaceuticals and behavioral analysis, this has surprisingly extended into the world of genetic engineering. In 1997, scientists shocked the world by successfully growing a cartilage composed ear-like structure on the back of a mouse, first demonstrating the possibility of lab-grown transplants for human patients. While the ear wasn’t functional, a recent study from an American university has demonstrated the possibility engineering even more complex and fully working transplants for humans.
Armin Moczek, a biology professor, together with research associate Eduardo Zattara, study the roles genes play in the development of horns on species of beetles at Indiana University. During their research, Moczek and Zattara were shocked to discover what appeared to be a third eye growing in the middle of the head of one of their subjects. Over the course of four years, the scientists manipulated the genetic makeup of other test subjects by injecting them with RNA, a molecule which is responsible for gene expression, to create a strain of beetle with the third eye. In order to establish the eye’s functionality, they further engineered beetles who lacked their normal eyes and only possessed the third. After experiments with lights to determine if the third eye was functional, the scientists found that, while reaction to visual stimuli was slower, the eye did, in fact, see.
While an amazing discovery on its own, Moczek and Zattara argue the real value of the discovery is its potential for growing eye transplants and other organs. Zattara said the study will give the team a better understanding of how eyes develop which, in turn, could enable scientists to one day grow artificial eyes for human patients. Beetle are merely a starting point, as he indicated the next step is to test the phenomenon on other species. Furthermore, it is possible the research could lead to the growth of other artificial organs.