Better Living Through Biotechnology? A Book Review

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frankensteins_cat-620x412With a title that conjures images of man made monsters, Emily Anthes’ first book, Frankenstein’s Cat, Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts,  invites us to explore the science that allows us to fundamentally alter the animals that share our world—and, perhaps, to reconsider our relationship with those creatures.

From research labs in China making mice with made-to-order maladies, to sidewalk experiments with wired bug brains in Massachusetts, Anthes takes us by the armchair on a biotechnology adventure intended to dispel the monster myths of Mary Shelley’s horror story.

Her witty narrative whisks us through a weird wonderland of animals engineered in ways evolution might not have managed without our meddling. Glowing fish? Cloned cats? Beetles wired to work for the Department of Defense? It’s all on the way.

 The tour begins in a pet store, where GloFish have become the latest novelty.

Engineered by sneaking a glowing jellyfish gene into their DNA, the fluorescent fish put the fun back in genetic manipulation. They also put transgenic animals in homes across the country; a move that raised the regulatory eyebrows of the Food and Drug Administration. After all, categorizing creatures concocted by mingling DNA from different species isn’t easy. Are they animals? Food? Drugs? No one has that answer, yet.

But Anthes has no problem with humans hustling evolution along. “Pets are products, after all,” she says. We have a history of modifying animals to suit our needs by selective breeding. These new genetic creations are this generation’s tool for building a better beast. And who doesn’t dream of that? Anthes asks.

Although inserting genes can be fun, it’s also big business. With just one more gene—for the protein that prevents blood clots, for example—the milk produced by goats can become medicine, too. “Pharming” is a win-win situation in Anthes book. Those extra genes add value to animals already standing in the production line.

New “Improved Animals”

Even more enticing, are possibilities for making new, improved animals with organs that don’t cause immune reactions in people. Then pigs, which already provide people with heart valves, could also donate livers, kidneys, and other organs. If animals are treated as commodities, Anthes wonders, does it make any difference if they become even more useful to humans?

The thrill of adding just one gene to other animals didn’t last long. Researchers soon developed techniques to create clones. Anthes introduces us to the scientists and citizens who pushed the bioengineering envelope to make that happen. Once cloning became a reality, the idea of stockpiling DNA from exotic and endangered animals seemed smart, too. Someday, our scientific skills might eliminate extinction.

Anthes tells us about scientists busy working wonders on the outside of animals, too. She shares the story of Winter, a young dolphin with an artificial tail designed to replace the one she lost after a crab-trap accident. The innovative materials engineers used to create prosthetics for injured animals are helping design better prosthetics for people, too.

Finally, she leads us to the strange corner of the science world where scientists meld technology into animals. Here, researchers make remote-controlled cockroaches scuttle on command and direct rats by bursts of light in their brains. Someday, Anthes says, those hybrid beasts could spy for the CIA or sniff out bombs.

And that’s just the beginning. She imagines a future with puppies that come with their own genetic profiles and disease-resistant animals that produce fortified food for us, too. We can even make bigger tails so dolphins can perform better tricks. Biotechnology will make us everything we’ve ever dreamed of being, she says.

Anthes is an ideal tour guide. With engaging anecdotes and funny asides, (Did you know the first cloned sheep, made from another ewe’s mammary gland cells, was named after Dolly Parton?), the seasoned science writer doles out deft descriptions of DNA swapping techniques that never leave the reader behind.

 But, we don’t all share the same dreams.

I’m a veterinarian and I’ve never wanted to design an animal to my specifications, as Anthes envisions. Nor am I interested in souping-up other species into animal versions of hot rod cars.

My biggest disappointment in this book was Anthes’ conclusion that man’s dominion over animals leaves people free to apply biotechnology as we see fit. In her view, our stewardship is served by deciding the circumstances under which our “scientific superpowers” should be applied. In part, Anthes echoes the philosophy of Bernard Rollin, author of The Frankenstein Syndrome, who finds no inherent moral or ethical wrong in genetic engineering.

However, where Rollin delves carefully into consideration of our relationships with species, he recommends more regulation, rather than less. Anthes is satisfied with using gain over pain as her benchmark. When human interests trump those of animals, she’s content to let the guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act cover any creature discomforts.

With scientific optimism that seems unwarranted — given our history of hunting species to extinction, polluting ecosystems until three legged animals appear, and pumping livestock full of antibiotics until superbugs come out — Anthes is confident the future holds solutions to the mistakes we might make now.

While I can’t join Anthes in her consistent cheer leading for the benefits of biotechnology, I enjoyed spending time in her company. She tells a good story. And perhaps sharing her stories will generate more in-depth conversations about our role in the world we’re changing.

 

Reference:  Rollin, Bernard E. The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Elizabeth Devitt is a veterinarian and graduate student in the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. She specializes in writing about animals, man, and medicine. Elizabeth earned her DVM from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

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Frankenstein’s Cat, Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts             Hardcover 241 pgs. Farrar, Straus & Giroux Feb/2013   

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