In her new book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, science journalist Emily Anthes talks about how the landscape of bioengineering has expanded since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996. Scientists, she says, are now working to create pigs that can grow organs for human transplant, goats that produce valuable protein-rich milk, and cockroaches that could potentially serve as tiny scouts into danger zones for the military.
One lab in China is even tackling the human genome by way of the mouse genome. There, researchers are randomly disabling mouse genes one at a time, in order to identify the function of each gene. By essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard to see what happens, the researchers have filled 45,000 mouse cages with mutant mice.
"By doing this over and over and over again, they've created hundreds of different kinds of mutant mice," Anthes tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There are mice that are prone to tumors; there are mice that get male pattern baldness; there are mice that have various behavioral abnormalities. One of them buries marbles endlessly. It sort of seems to be an OCD-like condition. There's a strange kind of mouse that only seems to be able to make left turns."
The implications of such bioengineering projects are complicated and still unfolding. On the one hand, research being done with bioengineering could potentially help cure cancer or give blind people the gift of sight. At the same time, it heralds unprecedented new territory with regard to human interference with nature. It also forces some tricky questions about animal welfare.
"It puts animal welfare and human welfare in conflict," says Anthes. "Most thinking, feeling humans, I think, would say that they don't want animals to suffer, but a lot of us — the majority of Americans — surveys show, also accept some sort of animal research and experimentation. ... Most people, for instance, would say that they're willing to see some mice engineered to get cancer if it cures human cancer, but they're less willing to see mice suffer if we're just looking for a cure for baldness. It's really something we have to tackle on a case-by-case basis based on what the potential benefits for humans are versus the cost to the animals themselves."
On unanticipated effects on the health of genetically modified animals
"This work, by definition, is experimental, and no matter how well you think it out, you never know quite what the resulting animal might be like, what its health might be like. There's a pretty good example of that from a few decades ago. It's called the Beltsville Pig, and scientists were trying to create a pig that was leaner and that grew faster and that required less feed. (The idea was to raise these pigs for pork.) So their solution was to put the human growth hormone gene in all these pigs and, in some ways, it worked. The pigs did grow faster. They did require less feed.
"But from an animal welfare perspective, it was disastrous, and I don't think scientists really saw it coming. The pigs had ... basically every medical problem you can have: metabolic disorders, arthritis, eye problems. They were just miserable. And so that's a real concern, but ... not all modifications will be bad for animal welfare. As it happens, these goats [with genetically modified milk] have elevated levels of an antibiotic compound in their milk, and early studies from the scientists that created them indicated that the goats are actually healthier than other goats because their milk essentially protects them from udder infections that can be common in farm animals. So it can really go both ways."
On the prospect of raising animals for their organs
"Scientists used to focus on the potential for transplanting ape organs into humans. The idea was that apes were very similar to us, so that should work, but that idea has sort of become taboo, especially as we learn more about how cognitively sophisticated apes are. So, scientists are now really focused on pigs, largely because their organs are about the same size as human organs and there are already some very successful procedures being done. It's somewhat common now to receive a valve from a pig heart in certain heart operations. But scientists really want to be able to transplant whole organs, not just a heart valve from a pig but, say, a whole pig heart into humans. There's a huge shortage of organ donors worldwide, so scientists just imagine that if you could have these pig farms that are just growing organs constantly, it might save a lot of lives. The problem is ... rejection. It just shows the potential of if we can re-engineer an animal's body, we could potentially engineer it so that it creates these perfect replacement parts for humans."
On whether farming animals for organs would be ethically different from farming animals for food
"Emotionally and instinctively there's something that seems very distasteful about engineering animals only so we can take them apart and make our own lives better, but as soon as I have that thought, I think about the fact that I'm not a vegetarian. So, logically, it seems more defensible to me to have pig farms for organ transplants than it does to have pig farms for pork."
On the problems with cloning pets
"The scientists who did some of the first pet cloning work did not really intend to get into the world of pet cloning — they were studying agricultural cloning. But people approached them about having their pets cloned, and they were a little bit uneasy about this prospect. They're still uneasy about this prospect, and they're still uneasy about it because they worry that our love for our pets can be so strong that essentially pet owners might get duped into thinking that this is a way to actually resurrect a dead pet. And it's still very expensive. It's six figures to get your dog cloned, and so there's some worry about pet owners getting taken advantage of. The scientists who do this work have a mantra that they use and that they repeat again and again to people who are interested in cloning, and that is, 'Cloning is reproduction; it's not resurrection.' "
On genetically engineering insects to act as drones
"There's been a lot of interest [from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] in drones — and especially creating very small drones — that can fly unobtrusively into caves or buildings and sort of scope out the scene, see what's going on. The problem with creating totally robotic drones, especially very small ones, is that they need a source of power. Some engineers have built some very impressive tiny little flying machines, but usually they're so small and light that they can only carry enough battery power to really stay aloft for a few minutes. So researchers have realized that insects are small, they already know how to fly and, best of all, they power themselves, so if we could just take control over insect movements we would already be halfway to these tiny little unmanned vehicles."