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Can We Create A Real Unicorn? Yes!

by Madonna Watts D'Souza

Can We Create A Real Unicorn? Yes!

January 21, 2021

From being amazed by the Goblins in Harry Potter as children to Dragons in the Game of Thrones as adults, mystical creatures have always fascinated us. Science says it could be very much possible that the majestic Unicorn lived amidst us once.​

The unicorn is genuinely a wondrous creature with its signature pointy and twisty horn, flying across the skies with its rainbow hair. We have all grown up seeing the illustrations, stories and movies depicting how graceful and magical the unicorn was. But the main question we all grew up asking was- did the unicorns ever exist?

The answer is a shocking Yes

In an experiment, a person created a unicorn using genetic engineering. But did you know, once upon a time, nature had witnessed the trodding of a unicorn? Even humans lived alongside with it.

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The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that "faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain".

Fossils Found in Europe and Asia Confirm the Existence of Unicorns

Elasmotherium sibericum or the Siberian Unicorn was a big hefty animal species that dominated Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This unicorn had a horn more giant than what mythical tales have taught us. It was a woolly animal with a height of around 2 metres (or 6.6 feet) and had a length of 4.5 metres of 14.7 feet.

This unicorn was so plump that it is estimated it weighed approximately four tonnes! Now you wouldn’t want to mess with a unicorn-like that, would you? However, the Siberian Unicorn wasn’t a close relative of the horse, but instead was an immediate ancestor of the rhinos. With the help of radiocarbon-dating, researchers discovered twenty-three specimens of the animals.

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The real Siberian unicorn, Elasmotherium sibiricum.

An Ice Age Being

It is estimated that this animal lived around the Ice Age throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It went extinct at around 39,000 years ago. This means that the animal certainly lived around humans. And our ancestors must’ve witnessed these rhinos’ relatives once upon a time!

Researchers expect that around this period in the Ice Age, the mythology about unicorns was born. Just like rhinos, the Siberian unicorn was a herbivore and loved to feast on rough and dry grasses of the Steppes. This strict diet could’ve also spelt their downfall as grasslands went on a significant decline during that period, which took this majestic animal away from us along with the dying greens.

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Skeleton of the rhino at the Stavropol Museum.

The Origins of the Unicorn

Researchers found the origins of this majestic animal dating back to the 4th BC. Although these creatures could’ve been popular back in the day, we need more excavations to reveal that postulate. The unicorn is a frequent guest in the Mesopotamian, Greek, Chinese and Indian cultures! The earliest description of the animal was found in Greek literature, where legendary historian Ctesias described it as an animal related to the Indian wild ass.

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Monoceros, a mythical beast first described in Pliny the Elder's Natural History as a creature with the head of a stag, tail of a boar, elephant's feet and a horse's body — and from the head a horn four feet long — from the Aberdeen Bestiary (Ms 24, folio 15r), written and illuminated in England around 1200.

Ctesias described it as an animal with “a white body with a purple head, blue eyes and cubit longhorn with its tip stained red, whose middle was dominated by black and its end radiated by white sat atop of the animal’s forehead”. Apparently, it was a frivolous animal and was too difficult to capture.

It was believed that drinking anything from the unicorn’s horn would cure illnesses like stomach discomfort, epilepsy and poison. However, researchers speculate that Ctesias description of a unicorn was meant to describe the Indian rhinoceros.

Can We Genetically Engineer the Unicorn?

With the advancements in science, it is possible that humans can create a unicorn. But how do they do that? Let’s start with the basics. We’d need a white horse. We can create a genetic mutation in a single gene and get a white horse quickly if it is not already present quite easily.

Now that we have taken care of the body, we would need to create its soft, silky and shiny hair, but it needs to be rainbow-tinted. How do we do that? By inducing genetic mutations in the horses DNA, a set of rainbow coloured hair created.

Okay, we can take care of that, but what about this animal’s prime feature- the horn?

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Virgin taming a unicorn, from the Physiologus Bernensis, a 9th-century illuminated copy of the Latin translation of the Physiologus (Bern Cod. 318).

Alisa Vershinina, a researcher who studies the DNA of ancient horses, at the University of California, says, “We can’t say we will change this gene and have a horn quickly; it is not that simple”.

Since horses don’t usually grow horns, it would take a lot of scientific effort to find the correct gene that can be mutated to introduce a funnel in the right place. However, if not done meticulously, this horn can spring out in a rather unusual place. Instead of the forehead, the horn might grow on the back. Now that would be an epic fail, wouldn’t it?

How Can this Genetic Mutation be Achieved?

One method is to use the highly controversial CRISPR technique to craft a unicorn. But even CRISPR isn’t perfect, and this could give rise to an unwanted mutation.

So in a horse, you might be able to add a few different genes that would result in a horn sprouting on their head." However, he further warned: "Instead of the horn off the top of its head, there's a tail growing there.

- Paul Knoepfler, Biologist and Stem-Cell Researcher, University of California

The second option is to choose all the particular traits we require from different animals and then introduce them into a horse embryo. However, this could spell disaster as the embryo’s immune system could go ahead and reject the presented animal tissue, and that would result in a failure.

A Possible Successful Test

Dr W. Franklin Dove has spent most of his life attempting to create unicorns. As a result of it, one could see bizarre animals on his farm. From the goat unicorns to cow unicorns and even tri-horned animals, these weird animals can be seen basking in the sun, trotting across Dr Dove’s backyard.

Dove created these mutations by extracting ‘horn buds’ from the heads of young animals and then transplanting them to another animal in the centre of the animal’s head. However, his main aim was not to create a dozen unicorns but to prove that horns don’t immediately start growing from the skull but rather horn tissue developed separately and then fused with the animals’ head.

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Various types of terrestrial unicorn (including the amphibious "camphur" top left), from Pierre Pomet's Histoire générale des drogues (1694.)

And to his delight, he was right! Horn tissue did develop separately. His study on the animals revealed that he proved himself right and indicated the vitality of connective tissue and “primordial” cells or stem cells during the early stages of development. (He also created many unicorns, except these were bilingual and even moo-ed or baa-ed!)

It looks like these bizarre animals seemed to have fun with their new makeover too! The ‘unicorn bulls’ made use of their horns and broke underneath barriers and used a forward thrust during attacks. No one trained the bull to be like this, so from where did it learn it?

The answer lies in the mysterious and incredible brain, which can change its neural and electrical pathways to direct the animal on using their anatomy to their advantage.

Would it be Morally Right to Create a Unicorn Now?

Although you must be pumped and maybe waiting for scientists like Dr dove actually to create a real unicorn, will ours be a pragmatic environment for such an animal to exist?

Researchers reckon that lab-born and artificially mutated animals find it impossible to survive in the wild and even have to suffer the harsh consequences of our experiments. If left in the wild, these animals will be so oblivious to the dangers that they could end up dying quickly.

Even if a unicorn was created, what would be its actual purpose be? Indeed, it can’t just be eye candy for children and adults to visit in locked up cages. It would need to be more than that.

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Unicorn and narwhal side by side, from Michael Bernhard Valentini's Museum Museorum (1704).

Juxtaposed to Our Fantasy

What if the unicorn we create doesn’t poop sparkles and rainbows and not fly across the sky (it obviously wouldn’t do any of it), but instead turns resentful of us and goes on a stomping spree to kill most humans in its path? While the outcomes are utterly unknown to us, it is incredible to think about how we have the power to create creatures which we thought only existed in our imaginations.

Now that we can create a unicorn, maybe we can try creating dragons or even create our favourite pokemon! However, if you want a mystical human to be made, will you ever volunteer to be a mermaid for science?

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