Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts
Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
256 pp., $26.00
Frankenstein's Cat, Part 3
In writing this review, I had to deal with my Springer Spaniel (Violet), who was whining over our local possum (as yet unnamed) who was stuck between our screen doors while chasing an anole lizard (also unnamed). I'm the one that has to keep everyone from eating everyone else, as well as tending the pets and providing a lush wild garden habitat for the "residents." So who am I among these creatures? What creature are we that manage other creatures, having engineered (bred), thousands of years ago, dog from wolf and wheat from three species of grass? And now with advanced technologies, how far will we go in managing and engineering other creatures?
Emily Anthes brings us up to date in her easily readable book, Frankenstein's Cat. This book covers genetically engineered ("transgenic") pets and agricultural animals, animal prosthetic and tagging devices, and remote control insects. Anthes is a science writer who makes sure that every page is both interesting and understandable for the nonscientist. Her knowledge base is evidenced by 47 pages of notes. Frankenstein's Cat will be thought-provoking to theologians, philosophers, and anyone else who wonders who we are amongst the other animals. The increasing power of rapidly developing biotechnologies brings this question into sharper focus.
Thankfully, Anthes sets these technologies in historical perspective. She notes that we have already created pet monstrosities using standard breeding. The deformed skull of the bulldog brings lifelong suffering from oxygen deprivation, while ornamental goldfish have freakish handicaps that we deem beautiful. In contrast, GloFish, available at Petco, are a genetically engineered zebrafish with a single additional gene coding for a fluorescent protein, which does no harm to the fish. Along the same lines, nonallergenic cats, which lack the single gene that would make them a threat to allergy-suffering humans, are now in development, and no harm is expected to the resulting cat. Chickens have been bred which halt the spread of avian flu, not to mention pigs which have no excess phosphate in their excrement, protecting the lakes surrounding the farms from algal bloom.
Is there any ethical or physical harm done in the development of transgenic animals? In many cases, yes, and this is the big dividing line between plant and animal biotechnology. Ninety-five percent of the corn, soybeans, and cotton in U.S. fields are genetically engineered, with no significant effects on human health or the ecology. But animal pain and personality raise distinctive concerns. What are the problems with animal genetic engineering? First, hundreds of engineered embryos need to be implanted into surrogate mothers in order to produce a single live birth. Second, an elevated risk of genetic abnormalities occur in cloned cattle and sheep, though not in goats and pigs. Third, if the wrong gene is inserted, an animal with many health difficulties may be created.
Are these risks worth the potential medical paybacks? As a creative being, read the book and decide yourself.
Chris Kearney is associate professor of biology at Baylor University.
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