Unicorn head and suit

Dear Evil Engineer: Should I impress my date by engineering a unicorn?

Image credit: Dreamstime

A lovestruck villain would like to engineer the ideal romantic gift.

Dear Evil Engineer,

For 35 years, I have considered myself a strong, independent villain who doesn’t need a partner in crime, but I have recently become smitten with someone I met at my local farmers’ market. She is gorgeous, funny, has a fluffy white cat, and makes the best beetroot cupcakes I’ve ever tasted. She has invited me to go horse riding with her next weekend.

I think this date is a great opportunity to impress her. I’d like to craft her a meaningful gift, which makes the most of my skillset as an evil scientist: a unicorn. Would this be overkill on a first date? And if not, could you suggest how I can create a unicorn in time for my date?


A starry-eyed villain


Dear villain,

Congratulations on getting your first date! Hero or villain, we all struggle to know how to conduct ourselves in courtship, and I always recommend being your honest self while remaining sensitive to signals from the other party. In this case, however, I think offering this woman a unicorn on your first date would not be a good idea. For now, channel your enthusiasm and evil into a more low-key gift fit for a first date, such as a bunch
of poisonous foxgloves.

A unicorn could be a fantastic gift to give this woman if your relationship blossoms, though, and there are two main approaches you could take: either genetic engineering or surgery.

Genetic engineering allows us to create organisms with some genetic material – and consequently some characteristics – snatched from another species. One of the most famous examples is artist Eduardo Kac’s famous glowing rabbit, which fluoresces green due to the implantation of a Green Fluorescent Protein gene native to a type of jellyfish.

Happily (for both do-gooders and villains), creating ‘spliced’ organisms is now easier than ever before thanks to the development of Crispr gene editing technology: this allows scientists to edit, add, or remove sections of an organism’s genome, much like manipulating an image in Photoshop. It uses a version of the Crispr/Cas9 defence system to identify a specific DNA sequence, cut the targeted section, and exploit the natural repair process to replace existing segments of DNA with a sequence of DNA lifted from another species.

If we consider a unicorn as a horse with a horn (neglecting their magic and wings), genetically engineering one is well within the realms of biological possibility; serious academics, including Crispr co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, have raised the possibility that unicorns could be among the menagerie of creatures engineered using Crispr. It requires you to implant the genetic material associated with a single horn from a suitable animal into the genome of a horse (which has already been sequenced).

One serious challenge is finding an extant animal with a unicorn-like horn. Rhinos have centrally-placed horns, but usually two of them. The Indian rhino has just one horn, but this is located on the tip of its nose rather than the middle of its forehead. A narwhal has an attractive, single spiral-shaped ‘horn’, but it is an overgrown tooth, not a true horn; this would produce horrific and unromantic results if grown on a horse.

Another challenge is working out which sequence of material in the donor’s genome is associated with its... horniness. This is a hard enough if the
‘horny’ gene can indeed be isolated, but it is possible that there is no single section of genetic material which you can extract and transplant, just as
human skin colour is not determined by a ‘race gene’.

An alternative way of creating unicorns is through surgical means. The fastest and crudest way of doing this is to insert subdermal implants in a horse’s forehead, much like those enjoyed by some in the body modification community. I would suggest implanting a plug, which you can screw a horn into; this would allow you to switch between different horn attachments to suit the occasion.

Alternatively, you could transform a horned creature into a unicorn with a tried-and-tested surgical procedure, which is essentially an unconventional
tissue graft. This method was first recorded in scientific literature by Dr William Franklin Dove of the University of Maine in the 1930s. Inspired by legends of the ‘unicorn rams’ of Nepal, Dove developed a procedure to manipulate a young creature’s horns to grow as a single horn. Horns are initially attached to the skin as ‘buds’; these buds can each be trimmed flat on one side and fitted together to form a single round horn in the centre of the animal’s head, which later anchors into the skull. Dove performed the operation on rams, goats and a bull under local anaesthetic, and detailed the operation in a 1936 Scientific Monthly paper called ‘Artificial Production of the Fabulous Unicorn’.

Dove’s technique was later adapted and patented by influential mystic Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (also known as ‘Tim’) who created nine male unicorns from goats bred from Angora and Saanen stock, which had long legs and luxurious white coats. His unicorns became a sensation when they toured with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1980s.

Bamboozled vet surgeons inspected the goats (even carrying out X-rays) and confirmed that their single horns were indeed the result of a tissue graft carried out when they were kids. Biologists are still somewhat divided, with some arguing that the grafted horns would not continue to grow as a single unicorn-like horn.

As Zell-Ravenheart’s patent expired in 1992, nothing is stopping you from attempting to create unicorns this way, even if you weren’t a villain. I would advise you to wait until the third date before you present this woman with a surgically enhanced goat, though. Any earlier and it could be rather overwhelming.

The Evil Engineer

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