The CRISPR Conspiracy Theory: Sci-Fi Aliens Evolved From Gene-Spliced Pets

Genetic engineering lets scientists re-shape different species. This is how the universe fills up with intelligent life.

Dogs are cute but can you ride them to work like tauntauns? And if you had to have a talking pet, could a parrot really compare with a shady-tongued monkey-lizard like Salacious B. Crumb? While genetic engineering can’t quite bring these sci-fi creatures out of fiction yet, it can already be used to engineer unusual, heritable traits. So what’s more likely, that we finally find intelligent life or that evolution takes the gene-editing ball and runs with it?

Occam’s Razor says that Ewok is descended from a Brussels Griffon.

If this sounds absurd, that’s because it’s absurd. But it’s also an interesting way to consider the lifeform-dense universes of Stars Trek and Wars. Terraforming and CRISPR could build such a galaxy. And it already is, albeit slowly: CRISPR has been used to make pigs tiny and dogs swole. Here’s how it could be used to create seemingly alien life forms.


In addition to crapping out sweet drugs and living for millennia, the giant sandworms of Dune’s Arrakian deserts provide a major means of long-distance sand transit because they’re fucking huge. Regular earthworms, by way of contrast, are hardly big enough to stay on a fish hook. The largest non-fictional worm known to humankind is the elusive Australian giant Gippsland earthworm, which is known to grow to lengths of over 7 feet. Isolating the genes responsible for its size and using CRISPR to splice them into regular worms might not quickly produce worms big enough to ride — there are some invertebrate square-cube law issues at play — but it could certainly scale them up.


What is Chewie really but an excessively hirsute version of your ideal — albeit somewhat ape-like — BFF? One cause of extreme hairiness in humans is congenital adrenal hyperplasia — an inherited condition caused by abnormal production of hormones from your adrenal glands. Key word: Inherited. Using CRISPR to splice the mutated CYP21A2 gene into, say, a gorilla embryo — we’re getting into “designer animal baby” territory here — could, in theory, create a much hairier animal than usual. (Unfortunately, the mutation is known to result in distinctly un-Wookiee-like stumpiness as well.)


Star Trek’s “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode centered around the purring, furry Tribbles, which look like the inevitable offspring of a toupee and a gerbil. In addition to their Klingon-scaring and Vulcan-soothing abilities, they also reproduce at a rate that puts rabbit fecundity to shame. IRL, the world’s most rapidly reproducing mammals are marmosets, which were recently found to carry the “twinning” gene WFIKKN1, giving them the ability to consistently reproduce multiple births. Assuming gerbils have enough genetic overlap with their fellow mammals, a bit of DNA rejiggering could very well have them popping out cute cooing hairpieces at near-exponential rates.


The bipedal, occasionally horn-wielding lizards of Star Wars’ icy Hoth make for excellent snowmobiles but unfortunately smell like ass — two traits that are, conveniently, characteristic of Bactrian camels, which are well-insulated for cold desert nights and, well, smell like ass. While it’s hard to imagine a gene splicing scenario that could give rise to reptilian scales beneath a mammal’s fur, the genes for horn type and length have been located in the sheep genome. Your future faux-tauntaun may not have the ability to run — and certainly not quickly — on two legs, but it could at least ram the life out of baddies when they inevitably catch up to you.


Behind the green skin and Obama ears is a diminutive kinkajou-like skull housing an enormous amount of the Force. Despite all of CRISPR’s potential — and the controversy about “designer babies” made hyper-brainy through gene editing — several scientists insist that no amount of gene editing can engineer complex traits like intelligence. At least not yet. But, as the master would say — patience we must have.

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