The idea of gene-hacking, taking DNA from one organism and transplanting it into another’s cells, is certainly controversial. Some support it fervently while others cry out that it is unethical. There isn’t a “right” answer.
That means that genetic research continues to carry on. Scientists from the University of California Irvine have pulled a page from the squid’s playbook with their latest research. One of the cephalopod’s neatest and most useful tricks is the ability to turn invisible. With some clever genetic engineering, the team recreated that ability in human cells.
Humans have long sought after the ability to become invisible. Whether it’s advanced camouflage patterns or unique materials that bend light just the right way, there are ways to hide things (and people) from view.
However, none of them are as impressive as a squid’s natural ability to disappear on command. They accomplish this feat thanks to specialized cells that change how light scatters off them. In essence, this allows them to change color or turn transparent.
The UC Irvine researchers wanted to determine if it’s possible to pass that ability on to human cells. They genetically engineered human embryonic kidney cells to express a certain protein found in the Doryteuthis opalescens squid. It’s appropriately known as reflectin and gathers into light-scattering particles within a cell.
Alon Gorodetsky, a co-author of the study, says, “We were amazed to find that the cells not only expressed reflectin but also packaged the protein in spheroidal nanostructures and distributed them throughout the cells’ bodies.”
He adds, “Through quantitative phase microscopy, we were able to determine that the protein structures had different optical characteristics when compared to the cytoplasm inside the cells; in other words, they optically behaved almost as they do in their native cephalopod leucophores.”
The team’s research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
They also experimented to see how the invisibility could be controlled in human cells. The researchers found that cells subjected to higher sodium levels scattered more light (were more visible) than those exposed to lower sodium levels.
“This project showed that it’s possible to develop human cells with stimuli-responsive optical properties inspired by leucophores in cephalopods, and it shows that these amazing reflectin proteins can maintain their properties in foreign cellular environments,” says Gorodetsky.
No Invisible Man
Although it would be incredibly interesting to see how this research carries over to living humans—and whether making invisible superheroes is possible—that wasn’t the aim of the research.
Instead, the team behind the study wanted to determine if the gene-hacking technique could create new light-scattering materials. Spoiler alert, it can.
Meanwhile, their research methodologies could serve as a framework for other projects that seek to gene-hack favorable traits into human DNA. That could prove useful when humans finally set foot on Mars as many space experts believe it is the best way to shield future settlers from the Red Planet’s deadly environment.
Regardless of where it goes in the future, this is very interesting research that once again shows just how powerful genetic engineering is.