When Does Genetic Modification of Animals Cross a Line?

BY Ellen Rolfes  June 10, 2013 at 5:39 PM EST

In a web exclusive interview, Emily Anthes, author of the book, “Frankenstein’s Cat,” talks to Ray Suarez about the ethical limits when using animals in biotech research and development. Watch their full interview on Monday’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour.

The Old Testament’s Book of Genesis says:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

But thousands of years ago, the early followers of Judaism and Christianity could not have anticipated the power humans now wield over the animal kingdom.

With the discovery of DNA and scientists’ ability to isolate and transfer genes across species, it’s possible to produce animals that could have only existed in science fiction stories previously.

Their creations include genetically modified organisms such as transgenic rats and glow-in-the-dark cats, and animals with abiotic attachments, such as bionic-footed dogs and cyborg cockroaches.

And with experts estimating that scientists use 50 to 100 million animals in labs every year, there is growing concern that about the potential dangers of misusing animals as more become test subjects.

In her new book, “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts,” science journalist Emily Anthes weighs the ethical implications of scientists’ experiments to transform animals with biotechnology.

Biotechnology can be considered scary and dangerous, but Anthes says there are situations where the scientific discoveries are advantageous for animals and for humans. “I don’t think being a good steward is necessarily non-interference,” Anthes told Ray Suarez. “There may be cases in which we have a moral obligation to use our new tools to intervene, to save animal lives, to prop up ecosystems.”


View more of these biotech creations in a slide show:

Those examples include the use of animal prosthetics, such as those being developed by Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. They created a tail for a dolphin named Winter, who lost hers when it was caught in a crab trap. Scientists use the research and technology created for animal prosthetics in human prosthetics, thereby creating a biotech win-win situation, Anthes said.

But other uses of animals in biotechnology are more ambiguous on the moral front.

After the successful cloning of a lamb called Dolly in 1996, the first mammal clone, scientists have succeeded at cloning other mammals, including cats and dogs.

Since we rarely think of our pets as just animals, there would seem to be a popular desire to clone our furry companions, but there are serious consequences, Anthes said. In a 2008 study by the Humane Society and the U.S. and the American Anti-Vivisection Society, 1,095 dog embryos were implanted into 123 female dogs in an attempt to clone Snuppy in South Korea. Only two of the embryos survived to birth, and only one of those puppies survived to adulthood.

A report cited in Anthes’ book stated, “Few cloned animals are born alive, and many of those who do survive birth suffer health problems and die soon thereafter.”

Scientists and animal advocates are also looking at biotechnology as a promising opportunity for the revival of extinct species. That too has potentially detrimental implications, Anthes said.

“Is a clone really going to be the same animal, the same population that has disappeared?” Anthes posited. “And more importantly, can these animals that are born and created in laboratories, will they have what it takes to survive in the wild? These are debates that ecologists and conservationists have a lot.”

Even when it is possible, Anthes told Suarez, the reintroduced animals risk a second extinction if key conservation problems aren’t addressed.

“If we’re destroying habitats or polluting habitats, we need to solve those problems before we start putting the animals back.”

Learn more about the book in this longer interview, which aired on the PBS NewsHour Monday, June 10:

Read a full transcript of this story.

Beth Summers and Rebecca Jacobson contributed to this report.