National Geographic

Biotech’s Beasts

Fluorescent fish, cloned cats, dolphins with prosthetic tails — these are just a few of the many oddball creatures you’ll read about in Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, a new book by science journalist Emily Anthes.

In it, Emily describes her tour through unconventional animal facilities across the country, from a barn of transgenic goats in California to a lab that’s cloning endangered species in a forest outside of New Orleans. Emily somehow manages to tell a fun story without glossing over complex scientific concepts and thorny ethical issues. The book comes out officially on March 12, but you can pre-order a copy now.

Emily and I worked together at SEED Magazine (back when there was a SEED Magazine…), and we both love Brooklyn and dogs. I learned a lot from her book, and she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about its content and her writing experience.

Milo and Emily. Photo by Nina Subin

Milo and Emily. Photo by Nina Subin

VH: I want to start with the AquAdvantage salmon, the genetically modified fish that grow super fast. When you wrote about them in the book, the FDA was still — after 17 years! — making up its mind about whether it would allow the fish to be sold as food. Finally, at the end of December, the agency issued a draft document declaring AquAdvantage safe, and we’re now nearing the end of the 60-day public comment period.

So, if the approval happens, what would it mean for the U.S. biotech industry? Why is this fish such a big deal?

EA: The short answer is that this fish is much more than just a fish — it’s a test case. If the fish are approved, they’ll be the first transgenic animals approved as consumer products in the U.S. (The FDA has approved a pharmaceutical that is extracted from the milk of genetically modified goats, but the AquAdvantage salmon would be the first whole GE animals cleared for human consumption.)

Many, many researchers and entrepreneurs who are interested in animal biotechnology are watching this case very closely. If the fish, which have been politically controversial, are approved, it means that good science can still triumph over politics. If they’re not approved, it will send the opposite message, discouraging further research and innovation in all sorts of promising biotech applications.

VH: I think you and I have a similar attitude toward the unnecessary fear (and sometimes, excessive regulation) that seems to swirl around new technologies, whether that’s these new salmon and other GMOs or personal genetics. I loved your quote: “It’s easy to oppose biotechnology in the abstract, but when that technology can save your life, grand pronouncements about scientific evils tend to dissolve.”

Your book is full of life-saving, useful, compelling, and delightful applications of biotechnology. But was there anything you came across in your reporting that you think is really, really worrisome? What’s worthy (if anything) of intense regulatory scrutiny, or even an outright ban?

EA: Well, the practice that most unsettled me was the emerging business of cloning pets. It’s not the cloning itself that bothers me — I have no philosophical problem with making genetic copies of animals, and I firmly believe that cloning, like other biotechnologies, is value neutral, that whether it’s good or bad depends on how we’re using it. But the problem is that right now, cloning remains a highly experimental technology. Clones of some species suffer from health problems at elevated rates, and the cloning process itself is extremely inefficient. To make a single cloned dog, you need lots of dog eggs and lots of cloned embryos. That means that you’re putting a lot of female dogs through unnecessary surgeries and surrogate pregnancies all so one pet owner can get a duplicate of a beloved pet. To me, that’s not an acceptable trade-off.

But if scientists can improve cloning’s efficiency — or figure out how to reduce the health problems among clones — my objections would begin to fade away. As they would if the benefits were higher — if the fate of the world somehow rested upon creating a cloned dog. (That’s why I’m less willing to condemn research projects in which scientists are doing seemingly more useful things, such as cloning disease-resistant animals or endangered species.)

VH: Human cloning — ever gonna happen? Yes or no.

EA: Honestly, I doubt it. Not because scientists won’t be able to do it, but because society won’t accept it. I think people will push to ban human cloning before scientists manage to pull it off. Or scientists will do it once and then politicians and the public will immediately push for legislation to prevent anyone from ever doing the same thing again. (But then again, predictions about the future of technology are notoriously easy to botch. Maybe human cloning will one day become as safe and routine as IVF. That’s not what my gut tells me, but who knows?)

VH: On to some fun stuff now, because your book is chock-full of colorful stories and a lot of Anthes wit. Of all of the famous Franken-critters you met — CC the cat, Winter the dolphin, and your very own GloFish, just to name a few — which was your favorite?

EA: Oh man — that’s an unfair question! It doesn’t seem quite right to choose. But meeting CC, the world’s first cloned cat, was probably the most fun. I’m not sure what I expected, but I definitely did not expect to discover that the scientist who helped create her would have built her her very own, two-story, air-conditioned house in his backyard. Or that she’d live there with her cat “husband” and their three kids. CC is a very cute cat, but it was a little surreal to be a guest in her “home.”

VH: Yeah, that was crazy! I laughed out loud. Did visiting all these animals change the way you interact with your dog, Milo? Or vice-versa: Did your experience as a dog owner change the way you approached these visits?

EA: I’m not sure that having a dog changed how I approached the visits, but they definitely gave me perspective on some of the drivers behind these biotechnological interventions. I certainly understand how strong the bond between humans and animals can be, and I also understand the urge to create or acquire a pet that fits a long list of exact specifications. I spent a long time trying to pick out the “perfect” dog for me, and even now, there are tweaks I’d make to Milo if I could. For instance, he’s very sweet but pretty skittish. If it were possible to give him a strong dose of courage with, say, a round of gene therapy, I’d be all for it.

VH: Your book talks a bit about genetic testing for dogs. From the little I had read about it before, I thought most people were interested in these tests in order to figure out the dog’s pedigree. But you describe how they might be used for medical purposes, too. For example, a breeder could avoid mating two dogs that are both carriers of the same genetic disease. So how common is the use of dog genetic tests for medical purposes? Is it pricey? Do you think it will become a more routine thing?

EA: I don’t think canine genetic testing — for either pedigree or medical purposes — is super common yet. But it has huge potential. There are a variety of commercial labs that offer owners the chance to see whether their dogs have certain disease-causing mutations. Many of these tests cost less than $100, and they’re simple to do — just swab the inside of your dog’s cheek and mail the swabs into the company, which will process the samples and deliver the results. I think this kind of testing is bound to become more common, especially as the price drops and researchers uncover more and more disease-linked genetic mutations.

VH: Very tempting!

My last question is about bioethics. Strachan Donnelley, a philosopher, apparently coined this concept of the “troubled middle” to describe people who love animals and care about their welfare, and yet don’t have a moral problem with eating them or having scientists do research on them. I’m probably in that muddled middle somewhere, and you write that you are, too. Are there any guiding principles in that middle that we can turn to in sticky situations? I guess another way to ask this is, what is at the heart of animal welfare?

EA: Well, the first thing to note is that if you’re in the troubled middle — and I really think that the vast majority of us are — then overly broad, blanket ethical statements don’t work very well. Most of us don’t want to ban all use of animals in research, nor do we want to allow scientists to use as many animals as they want for anything they want anytime they want. So we need to think about each proposed use of animals on a case-by-case basis. In doing that, we should be evaluating the cost to animals against the potential gain. So I don’t mind sacrificing some mice in order to study Alzheimer’s, for instance, but I’m not so willing to sanction animal experimentation in the search of, say, a better treatment for wrinkles.

And the second point that I think is important is that even in those instances in which we decide animal use is justified, we should still take welfare seriously. So just because a mouse is destined for Alzheimer’s research doesn’t mean that we can shrug off our ethical obligations to treat that mouse well during its scientific service. (That means providing anesthesia and pain control, when necessary, as well as comfortable living conditions, physical and mental stimulation, etc.) Even experimental animals deserve the best quality of life we can give them.

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The cover art for Frankenstein’s Cat, featured at the top of this post, was done by Diego Patino. Nina Subin took the photo of Milo and Emily.

There are 2 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mike Lewinski
    February 15, 2013

    Re: “If the fish, which have been politically controversial, are approved, it means that good science can still triumph over politics.”

    I assume by “science” this is referring only to human health issues, and that the FDA doesn’t have any regulatory oversight regarding the consequences of release into the wild. I imagine there’s no required Environmental Impact Statement or other assessment performed at all?

    Mainly I want to make the point that “good science” is cross-disciplinary and one field vetting something as ‘safe’ doesn’t mean there aren’t unintended consequences to be found in other areas.

  2. Emily Anthes
    February 15, 2013

    There is in fact a quite detailed environmental assessment involved in the approval process. The FDA has completed its draft assessment–which concludes that the modified salmon pose little risk to the environment and wild salmon populations.

    You can read the full assessment here: http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/GeneticEngineering/GeneticallyEngineeredAnimals/ucm280853.htm

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