white sea cucumber
White sea cucumber Ria Tan/Flickr

Genetically modified sea cucumbers could soon reveal secrets about their medicinal benefits and weird abilities to regenerate organs and dissolve themselves at death, after Chinese scientists found a way to mass produce the phallic-looking creature. Sea cucumbers are marine animals mostly found in the Asia Pacific region. They have leathery skin and an elongated cylindrical body. They are called sea cucumbers because they look like cucumbers (apparently).

The white sea cucumber is one of the world's most expensive foods. It has been a delicacy in China for thousands of years and it costs more than gold per gram, the South China Morning Post reports. The reason for this is their rarity – their white colour comes from rare mutations that only occur in one in every 200,000 sea cucumbers. The trait is not passed on to the offspring and the lack of camouflage means they often die young, meaning breeding them is neigh on impossible.

They are eaten fresh or in dried form in various cuisines but in most dishes they have a slippery texture. On their own they are tasteless and bland, but are infused with flavour during the cooking process.

In China, white sea cucumbers weighing 200g sell for more than 100,000 yuan (£10,300). Some believe they have medicinal value – being able to cure cancer, for example.

Yang Hongsheng, Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oceanology in Qingdao, said the reason behind the research to mass produce the creature is not for the dinner table, but because it "may hold the key to solving many mysteries of marine biology". Some of the weird behaviours of sea cucumbers include their ability to eject their internal organs as a defense mechanism, and later regenerate them, as well as releasing a chemical which dissolves their bodies at the end of their lives, leaving no trace.

To study the sea cucumber, Yang and his team produced the first genetic map of the creature. From this they were able to modify the gene responsible for albinism and produce 150 million baby white sea cucumbers. They now plan to carry out further research to see if white sea cucumbers have any medicinal benefit. Yang noted he could not precisely estimate the future market price of the sea cucumber.