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From Glowing Cats to Robo-Bugs, Book Explores How Biotech Creates Weird Wildlife

June 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks with writer Emily Anthes about the sometimes wild and weird outcomes when scientists experiment on animals. In her new book, "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts," Anthes looks at the ethical limits of -- and our emotional reactions to -- the use of animals to explore biotechnology.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a glimpse inside the wild world of animal biotechnology.

Ray Suarez has that book conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: Glow-in-the-dark cats, goats that produce human pharmaceuticals in their milk, mutant mice engineered to have cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, they may sound like science fiction, but these animals all exist today. Scientists and researchers can create animals genetically tailored to desired specifications nature never intended.

Is it desirable just because it’s possible? Are there ethical boundaries that must be watched?

Emily Anthes is author of “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.”

And she joins me now.

And your book is chock full of moral mine fields, the whys, the whens, the when-it’s-OKs to do these things. Had you realized how far along this science was when you started on this journey?

EMILY ANTHES, Author, “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts”: I had some idea about what was going on in university and scientific laboratories.

I knew scientists were tinkering with genes and brains, but it surprised me how far along this technology was in terms of trickling out to the public, that you can now buy a glow-in-the-dark genetically engineered pet or remote-control a cockroach with a kit you can buy online. That was really surprised to me.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we humans have been shaping animals to our needs for thousands and thousands of years. What’s different about now? Has science leapt ahead much faster than it took, for instance, to domesticate a cow?

EMILY ANTHES: Right.

So, if you look at something like the dog, we have altered that immensely just through breeding. But our molecular technologies allow us to make changes more quickly, to make more targeted changes. You know, we can just change one gene, instead of having to crossbreed, and also to start taking genetic material from one species and putting it into another species.

You could never get a jellyfish and a cat to interbreed, but you can now take a jellyfish gene and put it into a cat.

RAY SUAREZ: And that’s one of the things that pulls you up short. Animals are useful. They’re enjoyable. They’re our companions. They’re our food. And all these different categories seem to be spilling over into each other.

Nobody contemplated, I don’t think, a glow-in-the-dark cat.

EMILY ANTHES: Right.

And it’s not something that was intended to be a pet. Scientists created it to sort of answer some basic biological research questions, but now that it exists, it could become a pet. It could be used in all sorts of different ways.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there places where human beings almost instinctively put on the brakes, where breeding two kinds of dogs for desirable traits might be OK, but taking something out of a fish and putting it into a plant might not be OK, or out of an animal and putting it into a human might not be OK, where we haven’t even really thought it through, but it just seems wrong?

EMILY ANTHES: We have emotional responses to a lot of these developments. And I think they’re particularly strong when the animal looks different.

So there are some genetically engineered animals. You can take a gene from a spider and put it into a goat, but it still looks like a goat. But if you start getting animals like cats that glow green or cyborg insects that have wires coming out of them, I think that’s a little more emotionally — it’s tougher to digest, because they look strange.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we also have a hierarchy, unspoken, unthought-out really, where there are things that we might think it’s OK to do to a cockroach, to a fish that would suddenly make us feel pretty bad if we saw somebody doing them to a horse or a dog?

EMILY ANTHES: Absolutely. We have hugely inconsistent views towards animals.

And some animals, our society loves: horses, dogs. Mammals and particularly primates, things that are closer to us, we generally tend to want to mess with them less than things like invertebrates, which seem foreign, and maybe we don’t have as much sympathy for the insect or the cockroach.

RAY SUAREZ: Were there times when you were doing the research, because you saw a lot of these animals one on one, where you suddenly said to yourself, I thought I was OK with this, but now I’m not so sure?

EMILY ANTHES: One of the big ones for me — and this is more of a thought experiment than something I actually saw — but it’s been suggested that maybe if we’re going to keep eating meat, we should engineer farm animals that don’t feel pain.

And, logically, that sounds like a good idea. If we’re going to be using these animals for food, then it’s better for them if they don’t feel pain. But there’s something emotionally in me that resists that idea. It seems like maybe going a step too far. It seems like maybe it’s alleviating our own unease with what we’re doing.

And I think I worry that if it gets too easy to use animals, if we eliminate our own discomfort, then maybe it will give us an excuse to do more of it. So, that’s something that sort of sits uneasily with me.

RAY SUAREZ: You walk us through the science of cloning at some detail and some length. And it turns out it takes thousands of procedures in some of the early cases to end up with one living being.

And as we go down this frontier, there’s going to be a lot of operations on a lot of animals that can’t consent and can’t refuse.

EMILY ANTHES: Cloning is an incredibly inefficient procedure. And there’s been some discussion about clones themselves and whether they’re healthy or have defects. And there are welfare concerns there.

But the welfare issue that doesn’t get talked about much, as you point out, is to clone one person’s pet dog, you have to harvest dogs — harvest eggs from hundreds of dogs and put dozens more through these surrogate pregnancies. So there’s a question about whether it’s fair to enlist all of these animals in the creation of a duplicate of somebody’s pet.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as a frivolous case …

EMILY ANTHES: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: … as much as people do love their pets, but if we can stop fatal diarrhea among infants in the developing world by putting something into goat’s milk, maybe that’s a decent use of milk that we were going to create anyway, frankly.

EMILY ANTHES: Absolutely.

And that’s one of the things that I really encourage people to do is that biotechnology can seem very scary when you think about it in the abstract. But when we look at individual cases on a case-by-case basis or particular applications, some of them may be more justified than others.

And if it’s a lifesaving intervention, either for animals or for humans, perhaps we can justify some of this experimentation.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s next? I mean are there some things that we’re close to that are going to shock people when they come to fruition or come to market?

EMILY ANTHES: I think the area of cyborgs is a huge growth area. And it’s something scientists have done, so there are steerable cockroaches and rodents.

But I think this meshing of the biotic and the abiotic of living and machine is really the future of biotechnology. And we’re going to see a lot more animals and, frankly, humans that have electronic components integrated with their bodies.

RAY SUAREZ: “Frankenstein’s Cat.”

Emily Anthes, thanks a lot.

EMILY ANTHES: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our website, you can see more of Ray’s conversation with the author, as well as a slide show of more of the strange creatures discussed in the book.