Is it possible to create a gene of wings and literally put them in the DNA of a human?
-A high school student from California
April 27, 2010
Wouldn't that be awesome? Just like Angel from X-Men! Too bad there's no way to pull something like this off as easily as they do in the comics.
First of all, you'd have to be born with the wings -- any changes in genes have to be made long before birth. So your parents would get to decide if you would have wings. And you thought them picking out your clothes was bad! As awkward as that could be, there are actually a couple of much bigger problems keeping us from growing our own wings.
One is that we don't really know right now how an animal makes wings. We know some of the story but not nearly all the details. We'd definitely want to know everything about growing wings before we try to do the job ourselves.
It gets even worse. Right now we're not very good at tinkering with our DNA. Heck, we can't even really change one gene for something as simple as eye color. (Click here for more about "designer babies").
And wings are way more complicated than eye color. We'd need to change or insert lots of genes to make them happen. So even if we knew all the right genes to add, we just don't have the know-how to pull this off.
If we wanted to give your kids wings, the easiest way would be if you're willing to give up their arms. In other words, maybe someday we could turn your kid's arms into wings since they have a lot in common. But there's no way we could splice a nice set of wings onto your child's back like Angel has.
But don't get too excited about swapping arms for wings! Just because it would be easier than sticking wings on someone's shoulders, that doesn't mean it would in any way be easy! We're nowhere near creating a new species of flying bird-people.
It Takes a Village (of Genes) to Make Wings
There aren't many things in your body that are made from only one gene. It's actually very rare that one gene makes one trait.
Each gene has the instructions for one tiny bit of you. Big, complicated things like organs require lots of genes all working together.
Take the eye, for example. There are hundreds of genes that need to work together to make an eye.
There's one gene that lets you see blue and yellow. And another that tells the difference between red and green. And six others to make eye color. And so on. What's worse is that these numbers don't even include the blood vessels, nerves and muscles that make the eye work.
Wings are the same. You'd need a huge number of genes for bones, muscles, and feathers, and more to make sure they're all built in the right place at the right time. Then you'd need to change a whole bunch of other genes to make sure your muscles attach right. Imagine your wings attached so they couldn't flap. How disappointing would that be?
A Master Without Servants is Useless
There are some examples in animals that could make you think it just takes one gene to make wings. For instance, all ants have the same DNA and the same genes, but some have wings (queens and drones) and some don't (workers and soldiers).
The only difference between these types of ants is how, when and where they were raised. Something about their environment causes wings to grow or not to grow.
Since all it takes is a signal from the environment to cause an ant to grow wings, it's easy to think that one gene gets the signal and makes the wings. And some experiments make it look like just one gene is involved too.
For example, fruit flies have a key gene called antennapedia. In the fly body, this gene makes sure legs grow properly. But if the gene gets turned on in a fly's head, the flies end up with legs on their heads! (That's where the gene name comes from -- "pedia" means legs, and in mutant flies the legs grow where the antennae should be.)
There are master genes for wings too. A gene in flies called "scalloped," and one in ants called "ultrabithorax" (or, less intimidatingly, Ubx) are good examples of master wing genes. When these genes are turned on in the wrong place, wings sprout in odd places too.
This makes it sound like all we have to do is add one of these master genes to the right human cells and -- voila! -- wings. But it isn't so easy.
In our antennapedia example, the gene causes legs to be made by turning on all of the fruit fly genes needed to make legs. These genes are already in the fly. Same thing with scalloped and Ubx. They make wings by turning on all of the wing genes the bug already has.
The key here is that the only way genes like scalloped can make wings is if all those helper genes are already in the animal. Without these master genes, the bugs won't grow wings. But just having the master gene without its helpers still won't work. It would be like having the instructions for a building, but no bricks or wood -- not very useful.
Too Many Genes to Become Winged
We don't have all the
genes needed to turn our
arms into wings.
So could we put in a new master gene to tell the helper genes you already have to make wings instead of hands? Probably not.
At first it might seem like we could. After all, the bones in bat wings are the same basic bones that you have in your arms and hands -- they're just shaped a little different.
So if you're willing to give up your child's arms and replace them with wings, it seems like you already have a lot of the starting materials. But you really don't.
Humans and birds and bats are more complicated than bugs, so rather than one or two master genes, we have way more. We have master genes that control other master genes, forming a huge, tangled web of genes telling each other what to do.
Rather than instructions for a building, we have instructions for how to make a floor and walls. There are more instructions to tell how to put them together to make a room. And still more instructions for how to put rooms together to make a building.
So even if we assume we have all the helper genes we need, we'd still have to change each one of the master genes involved in telling your arms how to grow.
And that brings us back to the fact that we're just not good at changing even one gene, let alone hundreds. There's no "human/bat" switch we can hit. And definitely no X-gene we can mutate, like in the comics!