Genetic Engineering, Biotechnology and Brave New BeastsMay 29, 2014
Doctors have cloned and made genetic modifications to animals, but did you know they’ve also created glow-in-the-dark dogs and flu-free chickens? We often talk about what biotechnology means for humans, but what does it mean for animals? Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts discusses her book and the role of animals in science. She also talks about hot debates surrounding the cloning of endangered species and the use of animals for scientific experiments.
Interviewer: Glow-in-the-dark dogs, cloned cats, flu-free chickens-sounds crazy, but it's true. We're going to talk to Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beast, next on the scope.
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Interviewer: So in the beginning there I talked about some crazy animal modifications, glow-in-the-dark dogs for one of them for example, flu-free chickens, super smart mice. Tell me about some of the other crazy animals that seem like they couldn't be true but they are that you've seen in the world of biotechnology.
Emily: One of the craziest is probably cybernetic remote controlled beetles and rats. These are critters that have electrodes implanted in their brains and they're wired up in such a way that we can sit across the room from these animals and use a remote control to direct their movements, to steer them right or left.
Interviewer: And you've seen this?
Emily: I've seen them and actually got the chance to control a remote controlled cockroach on my own.
Interviewer: Did you make it come toward you or go away from you?
Emily: Actually that wasn't an option; right now you could only make it go right or left.
Interviewer: Oh. Okay.
Emily: But I made it go left for a little while.
Interviewer: I see. So as we talk about some of these crazy things that people might not even realize are happening, tell me why are scientists creating these animals? Is it just because we can, or is there a bigger purpose to it?
Emily: There's definitely a bigger purpose; it's not just to be cruel, it's not just to create a neat party trick. There are different purposes depending on the specific project, but in general they are usually trying to find out more about how our bodies and brains work, or to test out technologies that might one day be used in humans. So perhaps we could implant electrodes in our brains, not to take control of each other but to treat neurological disorders, or to silence certain brain cells that might be misfiring. So there's usually a clinical or some sort of research application.
Interviewer: So why did you feel the need to write this book? What was it you were trying to accomplish?
Emily: It was a couple of things; first of all I think we often talk about what biotechnology means for humans and we less often talk about what it means for animals, even though animals are often the guinea pigs for these technologies.
Interviewer: In what sense do you mean, "means for animals?"
Emily: For their future. These technologies, some of them could harm animals obviously, but some of them also have the potential to improve animal lives. We can use gene therapy to cure blindness in dogs, or tracking devices to help save endangered and threatened species. So I wanted to look at some of the applications for the animals themselves. And I also wanted to try and cover biotechnology in a nuanced way. So often I feel like it's presented with one of two arguments: either biotechnology's going to save the world, or it's going to ruin the world.
Emily: And the truth of course is somewhere in between, and so I really wanted to talk about some of these nuances and show people what we really mean when we're talking about biotechnology.
Interviewer: So when it comes to tinkering with animals what are the rules anyway? Are there rules right now?
Emily: There are a lot of ethical conversations happening, and there are some legal rules, though they vary by country and the government has traditionally been far behind the science. So it's been very slow.
Interviewer: But that's pretty normal.
Emily: We have finally gotten some rules about genetic technologies, but we have almost nothing when it comes to things like cybernetics, so that's the next frontier I think, talking about how we want to regulate or if we want to regulate hijacking animal minds and bodies through electrodes.
Interviewer: It seems like sometimes the laws are more severe to people that abuse animals, and other humans, so there's this affinity towards animals and it seems like messing with them in this way might really anger some people. Have you found that to be the case?
Emily: Oh, yes. There are a wide variety of beliefs and attitudes, and it depends a lot on what the application is you're talking about. I mean, some people don't even want medical tests staying, and some people think that's okay, but they don't want animals to be used for meat or to have pig organs harvested and put in our own bodies. That's been one proposal and it's very controversial. So there are a wide variety of opinions, and I'm not trying to get everyone to even necessarily agree, but I think it's critical that we start talking about some of these issues because the science is advancing. It's not slowing down.
Interviewer: So what about messing around with nature, creating something that we don't intend? Do we have any idea of the odds of something like that happening, and I ask in the context that some of these things that you talk about in your book, like glow-in-the-dark dogs for example; it sounds like this is going on, so we kind of have a history of it. Yes? No?
Emily: Well we certainly have a history of modifying animals. If you look at something like just dog breeds, those are not natural creations; that's been shaped by our whims and our selection over millennia. So this new technology is an extension of what we've always done, but certainly something that people worry about is exactly what you said, unintended consequences. Sometimes even when we think we know what we're creating, we put one gene in a pig, and we expect one outcome, we might get a different outcome.
Interviewer: Yeah. In the intro I did talk about flu-free chickens. That makes sense to me; I get that. A glow-in-the-dark dog, what was the purpose of that other than maybe being more visible and not going to get hit by a car?
Emily: Right. It's not intuitive exactly what the purpose of that is, but biologist have long been playing around with florescence genes, so these are genes you can take out of creatures like jellyfish, which naturally glow and put them into cats or dogs, or mice and make those animals glow. And the idea isn't to create a fanciful pet; instead, you can engineer these animals in ways that shed new light on biology and development, so maybe you could create a dog that has only certain cells that glow.
Or maybe the cells only glow when a certain protein is being made, or in a certain phase of development. And it provides a visible way maybe to track where cells go on the body, or to understand when genes turn on and off. It's a really valuable tool for researchers wanting to understand biology and basic biology.
Interviewer: Is this something that I, as a regular person, need to be concerned about, the trend towards creating new animals, experimenting on animals, and the way we are?
Emily: Well it depends on what you mean by 'worry about.' I would not be overly concerned for your own personal health and safety, but there are larger concerns. I think that we as a society should talk about the environmental one; it's a big one. Obviously there are controls on these animals, as I mentioned, but what happens if they do get out in the wild? How might that alter an ecosystem? And there are also legitimate concerns for animal welfare, and if you care about animal welfare. Not all of these experiments are bad for animals; in fact some are good for animals when you talk about things like flu-free chickens. But we might want to start discussing, you know, are there lines we should draw. Are there experiments that might be too cruel?
Interviewer: I think a lot of times people view topics like this in black and white, like I'm really against it and we shouldn't be messing with nature. And somebody else says, absolutely the animals are our domain. At the end of the day do you think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, because I think that's what it ultimately comes down to?
Emily: My perspective is that this technology is absolutely too valuable to reject it out of hand. I do not want that to happen. However, I do think that it should be carefully regulated, and I think we have to approach each product and each experiment on a case-by-case basis. The applications and the consequences are so wide ranging that there's not one answer.
Interviewer: Since we're at the Utah Museum of Natural History I have to ask the question, because I walked by a dinosaur. Does this technology allow us to clone animals like perhaps dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park?
Emily: Cloning of endangered and extinct animals is something that's very hot right now. It is possible to perhaps bring back some extinct species; dinosaurs are widely considered to be too old for that. The DNA degrades over time and it's so degraded, the samples are so old, it hasn't been carefully preserved enough that I don't know anyone in the scientific community who thinks that's possible.
Interviewer: But bringing back other endangered species; I would imagine some would say we shouldn't be doing that.
Emily: Oh, of course. And some of the biggest opponents to creating clones of endangered species are conservationists themselves, and they have a lot of totally valid points, which are that cloning doesn't solve the problem. It doesn't fix whatever it is that caused the animal to become endangered or extinct to begin with. And so I talked to some of the researchers who do this cloning, and they agree with that. They say that cloning is not an isolated solution, and in fact if we don't do more to preserve habitat it's not going to matter, because there's nowhere to put these animals, so what's the point.
Emily: But these scientists say that there is a limited role for cloning in conjunction with more mainstream conservation tactics.
Interviewer: Is this something that you feel the general public should be educated on?
Emily: Oh, absolutely. I think these technologies are advancing and these kinds of products are going to play a bigger and bigger part in our lives.
Interviewer: The last question: is there anything that I left out, anything that you feel compelled to say, an important message? If you could get on top of the building and shout it to the masses, what might that be?
Emily: We sort of covered it already, but my message to people is really that I hope going forward people can look at these technologies on a case-by-case basis as each application comes up, as each product comes out. I don't think it makes sense to say genetic engineering is inherently evil, or inherently good; it's merely a technique and we have choices about how we use it.
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