Fascinating History of Chimeras: 7 Examples From Fantasy to Reality

Daughter of the "mother of monsters," the Chimera gave its name to some very interesting real-life flukes of nature.
Christopher McFadden

Once the scourge of Anatolia in Turkey, according to the legend, chimeras are all around us today. Of course, they are not as terrifying or homicidal as the creature from whence the term originates.

As you are about to find out, chimeras are not that uncommon in the real world! Don't worry, you won't need to be a Greek hero to slay these "beasts."


Where did the Chimera originate?

The Chimera as a term comes from the ferocious mythical creature from Greek legend. 

"The hero Bellerophon was commanded by King Iobates to slay the beast. He rode into battle on the back of the winged horse Pegasus and drove a lead-tipped lance into its flaming throat, choking the beast on molten metal.

Late classical writers believed the creature was a metaphor for a Lycian volcano." - Theoi.com.

In the realm of science, the term has been adopted to describe any organism that contains at least two different sets of DNA.

This is most often caused by the fusion of several genetically-distinct zygotes (fertilized) eggs into one during gestation.

Chimeras in science are not to be confused with mosaics. These are organisms that contain genetically different populations of cells that originated from a single zygote. 

Nor should the term be confused with hybrids. These are organisms that contain genetically identical cells whose DNA originated from breeding two different but closely related, species. 

"Included among the different known types of animal chimeras are dispermic and twin chimeras, microchimeras, and parthenogenetic and androgenetic chimeras." - Encyclopedia Britannica

Interestingly, the very first eukaryotic cells were formed by the symbiotic fusion of two or more different prokaryotes (mitochondria, etc) many millions of years ago. You could, therefore, argue that every single eukaryotic cell today is also a chimera, including your own.

As we said, chimeras are pretty much everywhere you look (from a certain point of view).

Who created the chimera?

According to Greek mythology, the Chimera was a child of Typhoeus and Echidna. She was, by virtue of her parents, also the sibling of the mighty Cerberus.

Her father, Typhoeus, was considered the mightiest and deadliest monster in Greek mythology and was the last son of Gaea and Tartarus. Chimera's mother, Echidna, was a half-woman, half-snake creature in Greek mythology.

Also called the "mother of all monsters", she gave birth to one of the nastiest creatures in Greek legends. She is, for example, the mother of the Gorgon sisters including the legendary and much venerated Medusa.

What are some examples of real and mythological chimeras?

So, without further ado here are 7 amazing examples of chimeras from legend and reality. Trust us when we say the following list is far from exhaustive. 

It is also in no particular order.

1. The mythical Chimera would have been truly terrifying if real

chimera fact and fiction statue
"The Chimera of Arezzo", circa 400 BC, Source: Carole Raddato/Flickr

Chimera originates from the original mythical creature from Greek mythology. This terrifying beast was supposedly part lion, part goat, and part dragon.

Representations of the Chimera do vary with some having the lion as the forepart with its middle part goat and rear dragon. However other variations do exist with a goat head in the middle of its back and the tail ending in a snake's head (as in the image above). 

She (yes it was supposed to be female) devastated the ancient provinces of Caria and Lycia (both located in modern-day Turkey) before being slain by the Greek hero Bellerophon

Today the term is now generally used to denote a fantastic idea of a figment of the imagination. 

2. The human-monkey is a real chimera

chimera monkey human
Source: Chris Favero/Flickr

Developed by a Spanish scientist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, one example of a real-life chimera was the human-monkey. It was developed in China, and its purpose was to investigate ways to grow human organs for transplantation.

In theory, these organs could be genetically matched to a patient by taking a few of the recipient's cells and reprogramming them into stem cells. This chimera was developed for scientific study only and was not allowed to mature into an adult specimen.

According to current scientific ethics, all scientifically studied human embryos must be terminated after 14 days of gestation. At least that is what we are led to believe!

3. Lest we forget the human-pig

chimera pig-human
Source: k8/Flickr

One of the most famous chimeras in modern years was the human-pig experiment. Developed in 2017, scientists at the Salk Institue in California attempted to grow the first embryos that contained human and pig cells.

The experiment proved to be very challenging for the team, however. It was also not very efficient as it turned out.

Of 2,075 implanted embryos, only 186 developed up to the 28-day time limit preset for the project. In hindsight, this is probably a good thing. 

4. Real-life human-human chimeras exist too

Believe it or not but there are actual human-chimeras walking among us. While rare, they can and indeed do exist.

One notable example is the American singer Taylor Muhl. She recently discovered, much to her horror we are sure, that she is in fact a human-human chimera. It turns out she is carrying the genetic material of her fraternal twin sister. 

It is believed that their zygotes fused in her mother's womb early on during her pregnancy. This, in part, helps explain some patches of darker skin on her torso (that's her sister's DNA).

5. Viruses can be chimeras too

chimera virus
Artist's impression of a virus, Source: Kanijoman/Flickr

Even the microscopic world isn't free of real-life chimeras. In fact, scientifically created virus chimeras can prove to be quite handy at fighting diseases.

One example was created by Portuguese researchers back in 2017. They created a chimera virus from a common mouse virus and a human viral gene. 

This chimera is being used to investigate new ways to treat cancer caused by the human herpes virus. The team found out that when the cancer-causing virus loses a protein, called LANA, it also loses its ability to cause cancer.

6. Check out this human-mouse

chimera rat human
A scene from The Witches, Source: Movieclips/YouTube

Yet another amazing real-life chimera is the human-mouse chimera. After the lifting of a 2 week limit on human-animal chimera studies, a Japanese team of researchers is pushing ahead with creating a human-mouse one. 

Led by the Japanese stem cell scientist, Hiromitsu Nakauchi the team plans to insert human stem cells into mice or rats. They hope to grow a human pancreas within the host rodents.

As a safeguard, if too many human cells creep into the rat’s brains, the experiment will be terminated.

7. Bone-marrow transplant patients are also, technically, chimeras

chimera blood
Source: Andrew Mason/Flickr

And finally, did you know that someone who undergoes a bone-marrow transplant could also be called a chimera? In these cases, the patient's own bone marrow cells are destroyed and replaced with the donor's. 

In most cases, they will retain some of their own bone-marrow meaning their blood cells will be a mix of their and the donor's DNA. In more extreme cases, all of their blood cells contain the donor's DNA only. 

Not only that but even when you receive a blood transplant, you are also temporarily a human-human chimera! Spooky, right?!

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