Cyborg roaches. Fish that glow in the dark. Mice with Alzheimer’s. Goats with pharmaceuticals in their milk. These aren’t images from a sci-fi comic book; they’re being bred as you read. Some of these novel genetically engineered creatures are being produced in Massachusetts.
And the processes that make them aren’t just extensions of artifical selection, the kind of breeding that makes fast race horses. Inserting jellyfish genes into fish to make them phosphorescent is different from the crossbreeding we know. “We can … recombine genes in ways that nature never would,” writes Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), a new book about the genetic manipulation of animals.
Our journey into the world of the bizarre and ingenious begins with a trip to Fudan University in Shanghai, where, Anthes points out, scientists “have created mice studded with skin tumors and mice that grow tusks. There’s a mouse with male-pattern baldness, hair everywhere save for a lonely bare spot on its head. Some of the mice have strange behavioral quirks—they endlessly bury marbles, for instance, or make only left turns. One strain ages at warp speed. Another can’t feel pain.”
Soon we arrive in Massachusetts to consider larger animals that have been drawn into a mission to improve human health. GTC Biotherapeutics, now known as rEVO Biologics, produces ATryn, or antithrombin, an anticoagulant also made by most people’s livers. The substance prevents potentially fatal blood clotting, but not everyone’s system makes it. GTC took a human antithrombin gene, injected it into goat eggs that were then implanted in female goats, and finally teamed it up with a “promoter” that works in mammary glands. The result? Goats with anticoagulant in their milk. Extract the protein from the milk and you have ATryn, a human anticoagulant now made in living factories—the bodies of goats on GTC’s 300-acre farm in Charlton, not far northeast of Sturbridge.
Anthes covers the gamut of novel genetic applications in animals, from the serious—like ATryn—to the playful. In Woods Hole, as she shows us, GMO-meisters Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, proprietors of the RoboRoach, are popularizing hands-on neuroscience.Their website, Backyard Brains, asks, “Have you ever wanted to walk down the hall of your school or department with your own remote-controlled cockroach?” And you can buy it for $99, complete with instructions on how to wire the creature so you can take it for a stroll down the street like de Nerval with his lobster, moving the living insect from right to left by remote control.
But though the RoboRoach is one of the more lighthearted GMO applications, it’s not a long leap from the concept of cyborg insects to serious endeavors. For years, Anthes informs us, the military has been looking for “ultrasmall flying robots capable of performing surveillance in dangerous territory.” Manmade miniature robots lack a power source for sustained travel; insects are self-propelled. So DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been beating the academic bushes for years for an insect that could be equipped with microphones, cameras and/or sensors. The list of promising candidates so far includes certain types of beetles, flies and moths. And for missions on the ground, the national security stars of the future might well include robo-rats developed by a team of researchers at the State University of New York.
In this relatively short book—just 179 pages before we beach up on her extensive bibliography—Anthes touches lightly, tactfully, on a myriad of issues surrounding the crossing of species barriers that’s produced the creatures she describes. She doesn’t fail to make the point that old-fashioned breeding and inbreeding brought woes on animals: poor vision in goldfish, weak knees and less benign problems in dogs. Even the devices worn by animals being tracked by researchers trying to preserve endangered species, she reminds us, sometimes cause the animals discomfort, impair their ability to locate food, or make them undesirable as mates.
But she doesn’t lose sight of the point that genetic manipulation across species, and the insertion of machines into animals’ brains, are different from old-fashioned breeding. Worth pondering is her discussion of the “troubled middle,” a bioethical term describing the position of many of us who respect animals but also want them to serve as food and as subjects for research and other activities that benefit humans.
“For the vast majority of us who reside in the troubled middle,” she writes, “there are no easy answers to the ethical dilemmas that biotechnology can pose. ...How can we seize this moment to rethink our relationships with other species and recommit to their well-being?”
And beneath our amusement at the spectacle of a remote-controlled roach lies an ominous realization that a device that can commandeer the nervous system of an insect could be used to modify human beings in ways we’re not accustomed to contemplate.
The great merit of Frankenstein’s Cat is its balance. It could have been a gee-whiz paean to the genius of genetic engineers. It could have been a soulless expose of the bizarre features of its subject. It could have been a cry of fright at the possibilities unleashed by scientists in this field.
But Anthes, often humorous but never insensitive, portrays their products neither as masterpieces nor as monsters. What she does say, in many different ways, is that we must understand the consequences of genetic engineering and be prepared for them practically, philosophically and ethically—not after the startling and perhaps irreversible fact, but in advance. In other words, now.•