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Can CRISPR technology be used to create ‘super soldiers’ that are animal human hybrids?

So the hearing of a bat, night vision of an owl, hunting prowess of a wolf, maybe resistant to pain and radiation poisoning but still look and act predominantly human (possibly with oversized ‘bat’ ears)

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    $\begingroup$ CRISPR isn't like an app where you can adjust the brightness or volume, it more like an apk where it can also broke your phone unexpectedly :D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 15 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ What is "the hunting prowess of a wolf" .. in terms of making a biological enhancement of some sort that's a nonsensical and meaningless statement, what are you changing to achieve that. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 15 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting that CRISPR cannot be used to modify physiological traits in an adult, so to head off ideas in that direction, you'd have to be making your chimerae at the zygote or gamete level and raising them for the requisite 20 years. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jan 15 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ You're thinking of a warrior. The best traits for a super soldier are eating less and maybe super potato peeling ability. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Jan 15 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ But more to the point, what's the point of your question? Who cares if the tech we have today can't do what you want? Is CRISPR not enough to develop a near-future analogue (the descendant of CRISPR) that rationalizes the existence of animal/human hybrid soldiers in your world? I'm hoping you're not seeking "realism" to so great a degree that you'll walk away from a perfectly good story just because it can't be done (today). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 16 at 1:13

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The classic super-soldier trap...

...is that super-soldiers are generally wasted resources.

Let's run an example using our bat-eared friend.

You begin with two choices. Both choices will be massively expensive.

  1. You can raise bat-boy from infancy, or

  2. You can have bat-man undergo complex, invasive brain surgery along with the ear-grafts...transplanted from the poor sod who was born with them, now deafened and brain-damaged to support the war effort. (Eww)

Bat-boys will require a whole segregated neighborhood of employees and years of indoctrination and preparation to ensure they grow into their planned role. Living separately risks the society later rejecting them and discriminating as retired veterans.

Bat-men surgeries will require dozens of simultaneous surgical teams to supply the army's need, and the vast infrastructure to train and equip and supply them.

In both cases, you must spend tremendous sums to get each bat-eared soldier. They're not cheap, and they are not created quickly. Each is very valuable...but also equally vulnerable to shock and wounds as the next soldier.

But you get your bat-eared soldiers up to the Forward Line of Troops, a whole squad of guards sneaks Private Bat-Ears to a forward listening post, and upon returning he reports:

"The enemy has put wind chimes on every tree all over the place. Someone off in the distance was blowing a lot of whistles. There are bells on trip-wires. There are a bunch of drones up in the sky watching us. Too much cacophany out there to figure out what might be happening."

Because the enemy is not stupid.

They used super-cheap methods to jam or overwhelm the super-soldier's abilities at a fraction of the cost of creating the super-soldier.

Worse, the enemy monitored Private Bat-Ears' movement with drones. The enemy watched him return to the Company HQ, thereby discovering its location. And then they bombarded it with artillery, killing the expensive Private Bat-Ears and the key leaders of the entire Company.

Every weapon, including a super-soldier, has benefits and weaknesses. The super-soldier trap is that the benefits are fairly minor yet tremendously costly. Resources squandered for little gain.

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    $\begingroup$ Plus a set of headphones with a directional microphone you can give the same ability to anyone. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 17 at 3:08
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    $\begingroup$ What surgical teams? This is CRISPER, the point is that you genetically alter something to grow the right parts, possibly from birth. Better yet make it a strain that can reproduce. Now your supersoldiers can make children which cost the same to grow up and be soldiers as regular humans. Perhaps they might even be easier since you might cut some corners that aren’t necessary for a supersoldier and they grow up faster and learn war more easily and don’t need drill sergeants to break them for teaching etc. Also keeping a cacaphony means you hide sounds from your soldiers as well, not a good thin $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 17 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan CRISPER would mean that you have to genetically engineer the child at birth and raise them to adulthood, one of the two options this answer gave. It was just more inclusive by also including the alternative for super soldiers. As to birthing more supersoldeirs it's unlikely you have the same needs 2 generations from now, and either you keep putting in all the expense of raising all these second gen soldiers or you let them raise themselves, in which case you risk their defecting to the enemy, revolting, etc. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Jan 17 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan Recruiting normal human soldiers from birth is also hugely expensive and slow. Militaries rely on existing in a society where humans are constantly being born, raised, and educated in large numbers, at zero cost to the military. They can just siphon off a small percentage with the inclination and aptitude to become soldiers and to get a pipeline of recruits that only takes a relatively short training period. If you're CRISPR-ing babies into super-solders you don't have that luxury, unless a significant fraction of the entire society's population are ALREADY super-soldier engineered. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Jan 18 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan edited to address the surgical case more clearly. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 18 at 3:59
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Eventually, yes, but it wouldn't look like "eyes of an eagle" or somesuch.

We don't yet understand how genetics falls together to make a functioning human. Right now, what we know is equivalent to knowing that, when you press 'Q', a Q shows up on your screen. Actually programming genotypes to make specific phenotypes is hard.

Take, for instance, the idea of installing chromatophores from an octopus into human skin to give them chameleon powers. If this isn't combined with a neurological center that can control the chromatophores, all you wind up with is a blotchy skin condition. All of the senses would have that same issue. If you have super hearing, but don't have the wetware to process it, then you wind up with a disability.

As a known case, dogs have 25x as many smell receptors as we do, and 40% more gray matter to manage it. Imagine what your face would look like.

The real advantage of genetic engineering will be in making us better at the things we're already good at, getting rid of defects, and removing traits that we can live without. More endurance, faster reaction speed, improved digestion, stronger, faster, smarter, etc.

The real issue with hybrids would be that you wouldn't be making "humans." The probability of coming up with something like this that could have viable children is very low. They'd have the intelligence of a person, but the mutation would have a serious stigma.

Overall, super-soldiers aren't a very good mechanism for war. They are expensive, hard to hide, they don't store well, and the retirement options are distasteful. Better to have automation that allows a normal soldier to perform like a super-soldier.

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As it stands, No

But mostly because these are really complicated traits. And they all involve major trade-offs.

So, the hearing of a bat? Major structural alterations of the head, and trade-offs with space for the brain.

Hunting prowess of the wolf - well, I assume that means speed and aggression - bursts of speed will alter how long the super soldier can sustain speed for. Aggression might alter complex decision making.

There are no free lunches in biology.

Even pain reduction screws up all kinds of stuff—like the ability to spot injuries. And radiation resistance might involve a major drop in ability to heal other injuries—Deinococcus radiodurans has multiple copies of chromosomes, slowing down cell division.

Everything is a trade-off, optimized by millions of years of one of the most aggressive optimization processes we know of. Improving on this, as opposed to just fixing mistakes, is genuinely difficult.

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    $\begingroup$ There's definitely some optimizations, but there's a serious limit to how much stuff you can add without degrading other areas. $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Jan 15 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ about adding the sense of smell of a wolf to a human: the human brain can just process so much. The human race has decided long ago that we focus most part of our input processing on the eye-sight. Having another super sharp sense would either overload most of your wolf peoples brains (making them epileptics), make the brain tune the sense of smell down (signals are generated but the brain just lets 1% through) losing the expensive sense alltogether, or serverly impact and reduce other senses. (cont) $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Jan 15 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ ...There is a reason blind people have a better hearing and sense of smell than other people: most of our senses already produce more information than we can handle and is prefiltered and reduced, not by genetics but by growing up and learning $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Jan 15 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Aggression might alter complex decision making." Euphemism of the year :-). $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Everything is a trade-off." Actually don't think so, this implies every organism fits some local optimum (i.e. there exists no hypothetical organism that is superior in at least one trait and inferior in none), which is very unlikely. $\endgroup$
    – rus9384
    Jan 17 at 12:18
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An apex ideal predator already exists. It's called a human.

Human eyes are already pretty good in the dark. But we've invented starlight scopes which do better. We don't need to mess with a winning formula.

Bats aren't actually that good at hearing regular sounds. They're highly optimised for echo-location on their clicks, and on the sounds of moth wings. Less so on other stuff.

Hunting prowess? You clearly aren't aware that humans are about the best endurance predator on the planet. We can't go as fast, sure - but we can outlast almost anything. Our ancestors used to hunt deer by literally chasing them to exhaustion. And then we're intelligent, able to use tools and weapons, able to adapt new strategies on the fly, and able to teach those strategies to others so that they don't have to reinvent them independently. And these days we have vehicles to give us better speed over the ground and carrying capacity too.

Pain resistance is useful sometimes, but it can also stop you registering actual damage. For example, the main issue with leprosy is not feeling injuries. People with leprosy don't randomly have bits drop off - they get injured and then get infections because they simply can't feel the injury to take care of it. It's also a common issue with mentally handicapped people, which in that situation is compounded by their less-good language and processing skills. (My uncle was a prime example of this; and I know several people with family members who have the same thing.)

Basically, you're trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Don't get me wrong, it makes a great hook for some classic sci-fi books and movies. But you have to build enough suspension of disbelief for people to skip past the bogus science and enjoy the plot. (Or stuff blowing up, if it's that kind of film.) It isn't real, and it never will be.

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Your goal has two steps:

  • Design the genome of the super soldier.
    The genome contains the building instructions for a self-replicating organism. (Some other factors also matter, but let's ignore them for now.) Scientists are only starting to understand how the gene sequences interact and express themselves (that is, which change leads to which outcome). In theory, using sequences from animals (with desirable traits) should help with the task, but in practice it is still not possible.
  • Assemble the genome, put it into a viable egg, and bring it to term.
    Here CRISPR might help, assuming that the design from the previous bullet point did end up with a viable genome. But odds are that you need at least some parts which are not taken directly from an animal, but rather custom-designed (compare synthetic life).

So the answer is no -- CRISPR may ultimately be part of the solution, but it will be just one tool among many.

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There are two "technical" problems (even disregarding all "practical" problems others pointed out):

  1. We don't really know how to "invent" a gene and we have no idea about how to get there; we can only take known sequence and move them from one place to another.
  2. The genetic "blueprint"(homeobox) for vertebrates (and we are vertebrates, of course) control tens of characteristics at the same time, this means that changing something will change also something completely unrelated and often very useful.

(1) means it's quite easy to add (or restore) capability to to produce a certain protein or other substances (e.g.: some kind of pigment).

(2) means it's very hard to localize, for example said "pigment" on the skin without changing something completely unrelated (e.g.: thumb position).

We have virtually no hope to produce something like a dragon or a centaur for the simple reason "decision" to have four limbs (tetrapod) was taken about 385 millions years ago by some obscure lobe-finned fish and nowadays "adding another pair of limbs" (as it could and has been done with arthropods which have a simpler homeobox structure) would mean restart approximately from there and redo at least 300million years of evolution.

As a result we can make a fluorescent pig, but we cannot (and probably will go extincted before we have the chance to learn how to) make a pig with a fluorescent tail.

Super-soldiers are beyond reach of current and foreseeable technology.

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Some of those requirements can be conflicting or possibly end up overloading the brain: bats and owls, for example, are both night hunters; if you use both data gathering approach the brain will end with something it might not be able to handle.

Some other are not only genetic in their root: wolf are formidable pack hunters, but how much of that is solely genetic and how much is cultural, aka learned through exposure and learning?

Last but not least, the concept of "super" will strongly depend on your combat scenario: acute night vision or hearing are no advantage in a daylight combat situation, wolf prowess in a water combat might be of dubious advantage, resistance to pain I am not even sure it is always an advantage and so on.

But at the end you are not creating them in real life, just in your story. And it seems we are not getting tired of someone getting powers through a spider bite, so go ahead with CRISPR.

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    $\begingroup$ To add evidence for the first paragraph: Most blind people have their other senses elevated. This suggests strongly (and partially even proves) that our senses already are much sharper than what our brain tells us. While growing up our brain learned that those are less important than our eye sight and thus applied permanent filters to the incoming signals. "bat ear people" would most likely lose their elevated hearing before they are old enough to handle a gun. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Jan 15 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @datacube You don't even need to be blind. A test you can do yourself: put a blindfold and then go eat something. Your tongue will find so many layers of flavor that would go by unnoticed if you were paying attention to how the food looks. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Jan 16 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ Ok so a few things: brains are malleable and can adjust over time. Brains can also vary greatly in their ability to process information in the same brain capacity. You can add brain matter to handle the extra work. The extra brain matter to handle a dog’s sense of smell, bat echolocation and owl sight capability isn’t that much compared to the volume of brain we already have. This extra volume can easily be gotten through placing it in the spinal column (which already has neurons, can be gotten from squid perhaps) and making denser neurons (like parrots). Problem solved. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 17 at 8:57
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Yes, but not on a soldier's personal level. Doing the genetic engineering to make a single soldier more effective to the point where they'd have a major impact on your fighting ability is both extremely expensive and highly likely to fail. Other folks have pointed out plenty of issues with giving people bat ears or wolf instincts.

What you want to be aiming for is instead a generation of soldiers that make the work of running an army easier. Use CRISPR to clip out problematic genes that cause issues down the line or would disqualify soldiers from service. This could be simple things, like ensuring none of your future soldiers have a genetic tendency towards poor eyesight, removing or altering the genetic markers that make them susceptible to certain illnesses, and so on. Now you've improved your pool of potential candidates which automatically increases the quality of soldier you can field.

Next up, you start tweaking things that will actually help improve combat efficiency somewhat. Tweak their blood types. AB+ for all of them. No more messing around trying to get the right blood in the right person or trying to get stocks of O-. Boom, survivability improved. Filter out the genes that are associated with allergic reactions to the several dozen shots you want all of your foreign deployment soldiers to take and remove those. I believe there's a gene whose carriers require substantially less sleep than most people. Slot that in, having soldiers who can be awake and alert longer is fantastic for the operational capacity of your army.

There are dozens more small optimizations that can be made to improve your general pool of soldiers and thus your army's capability. On an individual level, your soldiers will be slightly better than the average citizen, but not in a very meaningful way beyond what you can provide with training. But they don't have to be. Logistics wins wars, not soldiers.

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If you have this level of CRISPR, yes you can.

Evolution has it’s limits but mostly in energy conservation and getting the bodyplan there in tiny increments. You can bypass those.

Adding things like squid camouflage skin, bat echolocation, dog sense of smell and cat sense of sight would require some more brain power, but not a lot. These are small animals that can function fine and the brain is adaptable, high intelligence in humans can be genetic and the same volume of brains can be wildly different in intelligence. So it wouldn’t take a lot to get enough brain power to do all these things. Denser neurons from parrots and ravens, using things like Squid which have brain cells in their arms to support the main brain and other tricks would easily solve any of that.

Since you are using CRISPER this is going to be cheap (no idea why people think it requires expensive surgery or anything). Once you have the correct CRISPER technique it’s just a matter of applying it at the right age/test tube conception. Assuming your super soldiers can’t just reproduce afterwards.

Countering this isn’t easy either. While camouflage works against human eyes it’s not perfect, and trying to destroy echolocation by using lots of sounds destroys your own soldier’s ability to hear as well. Besides, you’d rather use soldiers who can pick up on the sound of echolocation to detect enemy soldiers. A balanced super soldier would have redundancy, using multiple senses to locate things and protect himself.

While there might be some limits due to conflicting body shapes, you can absolutely make current humans way more powerful than they currently are. Smell, camouflage, armor (think honeybadger/grizzlybear skin and fur), sight, hearing, lung capacity (birds have a great lung system which can work on larger beings with some modifications), intelligence (bird brains are denser, this is a trade-off) etc.

An even more fun thing: Chimera’s. There are people in the world with more than one genome in their body. This is by accident but it shows it’s survivable and that individual organs can have their own genome. It means you can more easily mix-and-match. You could have “normal” brain matter for the most part but the denser bird brain matter as well, which you combine with Squid arm brain matter to have dense brain matter in the arms controlling things like skin color and managing blood vessels and pre-processing information like touch and sense of smell/taste (which you could put on your hand to smell stuff before it reaches your lungs) and more. This is normally done by the brainstem but it helps unload that part.

If you have the ability to CRISPR to the ability to add animal traits into a human genome and have it accepted, then all this is possible.

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Yes, of course (since you have no "hard science" / "realism" tag on your question).

First of all, whatever you do with CRISPR would probably need to happen very early in the life of your subject(s). While in reality it is absolutely possible to do some useful changes in grown adults - the relevant Wikipedia page lists several - this may be very uncomfortable or difficult to change large parts of the body, i.e. to regrow organs with completely new features; these would not only need the organ itself, but all the nerves, brain changes and so on and forth.

This lends itself very well to dystopian (or utopian if you prefer) scenarios where embryos are optimized using CRISPR very early after conception.

Aside of implementing specific animal-like changes directly, a different approach would be to CRISPR in some kind of "operating system" - i.e., some technologically accessible layer in the brain, together with new wiring inside the body, maybe "access points" to easily plug modules into the bone structure and so on and forth. This could easily be a general improvement, not only for soldiers, but for everyone with the means to afford it. Then, later, when someone decides to become a soldier, they can "boost" themselves by plugging in technology as needed.

All of this is of course not possible today in reality, mostly because we are still in very early stages of being able to work with the technology; specifically we are not yet quite able to come up with completely new "bits and pieces" from scratch to CRISPR into DNA. In other words, real scientists are, today, basically cut&pasting small portions from one genotyp to another, and not so much coming up with working new designs from scratch. This would be a third possibility to make your book interesting: your world could be advanced enough that designers can design whatever they want. Heck, why not even make a generic applicator where you can download new CRISPR bits from the 'net. The concept of viruses would have a completely new meaning...

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Maybe, but you are looking at the wrong traits.

We already have plenty of military tech providing night vision and other sensors that outdoes anything nature can produce. No point replicating that.

Nor is there any point in engineering a super-strong soldier. He's not going to wrestle the enemy. Good reflexes will help a little.

If you look at real elite Special Forces, what makes them special are mental attributes. Resilience, determination, dedication, courage, discipline, team working, leadership etc etc.

If you can find genes for those (good luck) you can certainly build an impressive fighting force. if you can turn those attributes up to superhuman levels, you will have supersoldiers.

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Yes. But only within limits, and with assistance.

We already have the ability to transfer genes between species. This is how we manufacture the bulk of our insulin: we created bacteria with literal human insulin-producing DNA spliced in. And, sure, maybe this resulted in some negative side-effects for the bacteria, but we didn't care about that--so long as the process worked, and allowed us to produce human-compatible insulin in commercial quantities, that was all that mattered.

CRISPR, a newer technology, allows us to do this with even greater precision. So as long as you accept the side-effects, it can theoretically transfer a wide range of genes--and their accompanying traits--between species.

Limits

Obviously, using any sort of DNA-alteration to alter a species is going to have limits. Even if we identified the "eye-producing genes" from a human (which is itself a more vague classification than you might think,) trying to splice those into a bacteria isn't going to wind up with single-cell organisms with microscopic eyes on them, visually observing the world around them. There are far more elements needed to produce, sustain and make use of a functional eyeball than just those of the eyeball itself. Some species are simply too different to swap the bulk of their traits; and even very similar species will have enough differences to limit their inter-compatibility. (And this is even not worrying about the fact that once you have the appropriately-modified DNA, the changes might be such that no living creature can successfully gestate the unborn child.)

A good portion of the problem is that, without knowing the limits ahead of time, it will take a good deal of time, resources and effort (not to mention unethical experimentation) to uncover them. Only once those are known could one even begin to find a suitable solution to their search for a viable chimeric combination.

Assistance

This is where the assistance comes in, and, even though I suspect we'll see a growing number of answers to technical issues (fictional or real) default to this in the common years, it's not just because it's trendy, but because it actually works: AI will be the path forward.

Large language models (LLMs) can now pass the Turing test often enough to be considered usable for numerous purposes (witness the explosion of ChatGPT apps.) And these are systems where no one explained sentence structure, or nouns vs. verbs to them... they deciphered all of that on their own, to the degree that they can literally converse well enough to fool humans, all by examining the statistical relations between words from enough textual sources. That's it. And we know that with enough data, training time and processing power, the number and quality of inferences and connections they can make only increases, up to and even beyond the abilities of most intelligent people.

So if someone were to, say, have done nothing but experiment with DNA and CRISPR on multiple species for years, even decades, recording all the results in a structured format, and used that as the training data for even a straightforward LLM, then the only thing that would stop that system from being able to tell you PRECISELY what genes you would need to transfer, and from which creatures, to get specific effects, and to tell you what side-effects you could expect (and possibly how to minimize or counter them,) would be (1) the quantity and quality of the experimental data, and (2) technical resources.

It's actually a bit frightening that this is actually on the table now, in the real world.


So, yes, with a powerful enough, properly-trained AI assisting (possibly armed with the research of an villain who's been doing dark experiments for a decade,) it is indeed possible to use a technology such as CRISPR to swap genes into human DNA to transfer traits and produce numerous different approximations of what could be called a "super-soldier."

You probably won't get one with bat ears or an elephant trunk, but hybrids with a selection of more-subtle traits that add up to a notable battlefield advantage would definitely be possible.

Of course, whether this would be economically viable, or whether the side-effects produced in the resultant chimeric humans would be significant enough to cause issues, is another question entirely.

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