World's First Gene-Edited Lizard Lives

The birth of a gene-edited lizard marked a breakthrough in genome editing. It is the first reptile to introduce the albino trait to an Anolis lizard. Scientists all over the world recognized the development as a “game changer.”

The application of a transformative gene-editing tool called CRISPR enabled the creation of the first-ever gene-edited reptile, the New York Times first reported.

“We weren’t really expecting to generate an albino lizard at first,” Ashley Rasys, a graduate student at the University of Georgia who was part of the project, said.

When the lizard was born, Rasys said they were mystified since it almost looked transparent – a trait that is not typical of Anolis lizards.

“When we want to understand human biology, we go to one of these model systems,” Douglas Menke, the director of the genetics department at the University of Georgia and co-author of the study featured in the peer-reveiewed journal Science, said. 

He added that gene experiments were not conducted on reptiles before due to the presumption that reptiles were hard to work with. Scientists found it difficult to access a lizard’s reproductive systems but the breakthrough made mutation easier for future projects.

“We can now create two to four mutant lizards from just a day’s work,” Menke said.

The study focused on altering gene codes for albinism since this characteristic is more visual and easier to distinguish from the reptile’s normal traits. The scientists thought that it would take them years before achieving results, but the birth of the albino lizard proved them otherwise.

Scientists initially edited immature, unfertile eggs of brown Anolis lizards using genome editor CRISPR. They injected the gene to a single-celled fertilized egg where subsequent cell’s DNA was altered. They targeted a gene that produces the enzyme tyrosinase, which affects skin pigmentation.

As per evolutionary biologist Tony Gamble who studies geckos at Marquette University, the new technique may also work for snakes and other reptiles. Although mice were the common choices for test samples, the birth of the gene-edited lizard was referred to as a “game changer” in genetic mutation studies.

The project’s success also marked humans’ ability to prevent certain species from extinction. Scientists claimed that conducting CRISPR experiments on animals can help in the revival of species that had been extinct for some time. The birth of the albino lizard serves as evidence that the preservation of species is possible.