Scientists ‘really surprised’ after gene-editing experiment unexpectedly turned hamsters into hyper-aggressive bullies

Scientists 'really surprised' after gene-editing experiment unexpectedly turned hamsters into hyper-aggressive bullies

An image of a Syrian hamster looking at the camera.

An image of a Syrian hamster looking at the camera.Getty Images

  • A team of neuroscientists have been “really surprised” by the results of a gene-editing experiment on hamsters.

  • The team expected that eliminating vasopressin activity would make the hamsters more serene.

  • Instead, the genetically modified hamsters displayed “high levels” of aggression.

A team of neuroscience researchers were “truly surprised” after a gene-editing experiment unexpectedly created hyper-aggressive hamsters, according to a statement from Georgia State University (GSU).

The GSU research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), sought to learn more about the biology behind mammalian social behavior.

Scientists used Syrian hamsters and CRISPR-Cas9, a breakthrough technology that can turn genes on or off in cells. The technology eliminated a receptor for vasopressin, a hormone associated with increased aggression.

Scientists expected this to “radically” alter the social behavior of Syrian hamsters, making them more peaceful. It changed their behavior, but not in the way they had expected.

“We were really surprised with the results,” said the study’s lead author, Professor H. Elliott Albers of GSU, in the university’s statement.

“We predicted that if we eliminated vasopressin activity, we would reduce both aggression and social communication,” Albers continued. “But the opposite happened.”

Hamsters without the receptor showed “high levels of aggression” toward same-sex hamsters compared to their counterparts with the receptors intact, according to the study.

“This suggests a surprising conclusion,” Albers said, according to the release. “Although we know that vasopressin increases social behaviors by acting in a number of brain regions, it is possible that the more global effects of the Avpr1a receptor are inhibitory.”

The “counterintuitive findings” show that scientists “don’t understand this system as well as we thought,” Albers said.

Developing genetically modified hamsters was “not easy,” Albers continued. He added that a better understanding of the role of vasopressin in social behavior is essential to help scientists identify new treatment strategies for psychiatric disorders in humans, ranging from autism to depression.

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