Rob Hardy on books


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Techno-Animals in Your Future



Rob Hardy


You have the cutting-edge technology on your phone, and in your kitchen, and in your car. Why should you not have it in your pets? The prospects of such technology are the subject of Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by science writer Emily Anthes. If you have a hankering for pets that glow in the dark, or can be electronically controlled, or can be cloned so that you forever have that one great dog in your life, this is your book. Anthes's tone is light and funny; there are some scientific themes that could have been explored in depth here and especially there are ethical issues that might bear more examination that her "What fun!" pitch carries. Nonetheless, this is an amiable introduction to a relatively new arena for human tinkering, one that will become more important as time goes on. 




Of course, we have tinkered with animals for a long time. Goldfish, for example, didn't used to be gold; they were ordinary silver-gray carp, but one occasionally showed some gold, and in the thirteenth century, fish keepers in China bred for gold, selling the resultant pretties to rich Chinese families. Anthes's book is about something else entirely, like GloFish. People have kept zebrafish in their aquariums for ages, but no amount of selective breeding could produce a fish that glowed when illuminated by black lights. (Yes, they glow; but no, they do not glow in the dark, because they require black light illumination to do so.) The fish were made by inserting a bit of jellyfish DNA into their genes. The inventor of GloFish had to convince regulators that the fish were for show, not for food, and that if they got into the environment, they would not survive our chilly North American waters. (No-glow zebrafish have been in this country for decades without making a colony in the wild.) It still was hard to get GloFish approved; one of the objections was that the fish represented tinkering with DNA for trivial purposes. They still are not approved for sale in California (or Canada or Europe), but the fish are popular, and the original red version has been joined by fish that glow green, orange, blue, and purple. The inventor says, "Biotechnology is often demonized. And then you see this tiny little fish, just swimming around, as happy as can be." 




GloFish may be trivial, but that's one reason they got approved. They are currently the only transgenic animals the American public can own. Animals genetically changed to be food or to manufacture medicine really have problems getting governmental approval. There are transgenic goats, for instance, that have had their milk production genes changed so that there is extra lysozyme in their milk. Lysozyme is an enzyme that aids digestion, and milk charged with it might keep millions of children each year from dying from diarrhea. The milk also protects the udders of the goats from getting infections that afflict their unmodified kin. It all sounds like a good plan, but the FDA has been slow to approve. Then, too, we might engineer pigs so that their organs would make better transplants into humans by knocking out the molecular parts which our immune systems would attack as foreign. We already breed pigs so that we can use their parts as food; what would be the difference in using their parts as donated organs? Push the problem a little further, and it becomes more complicated. Inserting human growth hormone into pigs made them grow faster and need less feed; this is great for the sellers of pork. But the animals suffered from all sorts of medical problems and their lives were miserable. 




DNA tinkering happens with cloning, too. Originally, cloning was to be a boon for farming animals, but the scientists who did it were approached by people who wanted to clone a pet. It can be done; you can have Fido II for about $100,000. There are two companies with jokey names mentioned here in the pet clone business, Genetic Savings & Clone and PerPETuate. Only the latter is still in business, and though it can clone your pet, the process is so iffy that it is recommending that you simply put Fido's genes in their cold storage facility (with an annual fee) to await the day when cloning is perfected and cheaper. The scientists doing this work have to be careful to make sure potential customers know that even a perfect clone will be a different animal (identical twins have their differences, after all) and that if Fido I obligingly slept in the corner, it is no guarantee that Fido II won't hog space in the human bed. Proposals exist to use DNA from nearly extinct, or even extinct, species as clone material in order to bring back ("rewild") regions that have lost their native animals; but surely the answer to the problem is not endangering the wild regions to begin with.  




Not all of Anthes's book has to do with genes. There is a cheerful chapter about the dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in an encounter with a crab trap. Imaginative material engineers came up with a replacement carbon fiber tail, along with novel ways to attach it. Winter is adept at using it, although she takes much assistance in getting it off and on, and she will never be able to go back into the wild. In her tank, though, she is visited by children who have prostheses, and cheers them up. More importantly, the lessons learned from making and attaching her artificial tail are making artificial limbs for humans better. It's a happy story; now think about the story of the guy who invented prosthetic testicles - "Neuticles" - for dogs whose owners want to pay $1,000 to make their four-legged guy look whole. The company slogan asserts, "It's like nothing ever changed," and not only dogs, but cats, horses, and bulls now sport fake testicles. It is hard to imagine that the male dogs so accessorized are any happier, nor that the female dogs take notice.  




Other scientists seem to be impatient about how long it is taking to make robots that are good imitations of life, so they are going halfway and turning animals into robots. Bugs, already something like robots, are great candidates for such treatment. A beetle can be wired and sport a receiver backpack, and can be flown in desired directions, like a living drone. The teensy electronic gear takes a teensy amount of power, and teensy generators powered by the insect's own wings have been invented. If you insert the wires into the insect when it is but a pupa, the operation is easier, "and since the adults are born with circuit boards hanging out of their backs, they're less likely to perceive them as foreign objects or extra weight (after all, the bugs will never know a life in which they aren't attached to circuit boards)." It is possible that such cyborgs might spy on bad guys (or just any guys, I suppose), and they might be equipped with sensors to look for living people in the rubble of an earthquake. There are a couple of inventors who will sell you a kit to make your own robo-roach, "the worlds first commercially available cyborg," one says. First you catch your roach, then you anesthetize it in ice water, then you snip the end of its antennae, then you thread a wire inside the antenna, then you glue the receiver onto its head and attach the wires. You can then send it signals to turn it left and right. The inventors think they are using roaches for the best possible purpose, education, and one time they posted a sign on the door of the bathroom of the airplane they were on: "Free Neuroscience Lessons at seats 33A and 33B." 




Of course, the roaches turned into cyborgs don't get anything out of the deal, but I doubt that even PETA is going to mount a campaign for roach independence. There are moral issues to be considered in using animals for our own benefit, but we have used animals for millennia. Just because the technology described here is new does not make it worrisome, provided we take animal welfare into account. Anthes has the right balance in reporting how these animals fare, and she is especially good at telling the stories of researchers and entrepreneurs who are working in this new world, and who may contribute to both human and animal welfare. It's all just starting; we should watch with awareness, but Anthes would insist that we should also enjoy the show.



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