Cyborg bugs and glow-in-the-dark cats: How we’re engineering animals

Story highlights

Science journalist Emily Anthes explores biotech's innovations in a new book

She covers topics such as cloning and genetic engineering

This field is moving forward constantly

Though the tools are new, Anthes says, the ethical questions are not

CNN  — 

A cyborg beetle or a pet fish engineered to glow under ultraviolet light might sound like something you’d see in a movie about the future.

But if that’s the case, then the future is here.

Those are just two of the developments science journalist Emily Anthes explores in her new book, “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.” In easy-to-digest language, Anthes looks at the varied ways scientists are reshaping other living things – and opening up a dialogue on ethics in the process.

Cloning, for example, falls into this discussion, as does “pharming,” or genetically engineering animals for medicinal purposes. Advancements in prosthetics are giving new options to injured animals – and occasionally benefiting humans, too.

Anthes highlights the example of Atlantic bottlenose dolphin Winter, whose story – she lost her tail after being caught in a crab-trap line and was fitted with a prosthetic one – inspired the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.” In the process of developing Winter’s tail, scientists came up with a prosthetic gel liner that some human amputees now use on their artificial limbs because of its impressive grip.

Biotech’s capabilities extend to pet owners. A dog owner who frets about losing a beloved companion might be intrigued by the possibilities cloning offers, while cat lovers with allergies would probably be interested to hear that genetic engineering could offer a solution.

GloFish, which are zebrafish that have been genetically engineered to contain a fluorescent protein gene, are sold as pets in 49 states. (There’s also a domestic cat in the U.S., Mr. Green Genes, who glows when placed under ultraviolet light, although Anthes doesn’t foresee there being much of a market for more like him.)

CNN explored these examples and some of the stickier ethical questions posed by engineering animals in an interview this week with Anthes. Some answers were edited for brevity.

CNN: What was the impetus behind “Frankenstein’s Cat”?

Anthes: I’m a science geek and an animal lover, so I gravitate toward stories about animals. Over time, I noticed that it seemed like every week there was some new story about genetically modified this, or cloned that, or cyborg bugs, or beetle drones. I got interested in putting all the pieces together and trying to figure out what this all meant.

CNN: When you look at something like the bottlenose dolphin and how it carries over to the way we treat our own amputees, it seems to be a win-win all around. But at what point does it become a little hairier, and morally ambiguous, when you’re talking about using different experiments to help human problems?

Anthes: The dolphin is a great example because that involves treating an animal that’s already been injured on its own. It may have human payoff down the road, but in the process of doing this work, you’re making an animal better. But not all research is like that. In some cases, we take animals who are healthy and we make them sick so we can study them, and that, obviously, is a lot more ethically complicated.

That’s probably one of the most – if not the most – common uses of genetic engineering, is scientists engineering rats and mice who suffer from various diseases that they then want to study to learn about cures or treatments for human disease. That’s a pretty clear instance where animal welfare and human welfare are in direct opposition.

It’s tricky, because it seems deeply unfair, and in some senses, it is. I like animals, and I don’t want to see us creating rats that are just studded with tumors all the time, but if you told me that would actually yield a cure for cancer, it’s hard to say no to that.

Studies have shown that the public is deeply conflicted about this, and I think there are some distinctions you can make based on what the potential benefits are. I don’t like the idea of testing cosmetics on animals, and I think a lot of people would agree with me. But I think most people are slightly more accepting when it comes to testing chemotherapy on animals, because the potential payoff for humans is so big. Of course, that’s not any consolation for the animal.

CNN: I thought you made an interesting point in your book about technology, that we’re in a period where we’re accustomed to personalization. What could the future of biotech hold for that?

Anthes: We have desired custom-designed pets for a long time, it’s just that our options for creating them were limited. The techniques of molecular genetics really lets us go in and, for the first time, target very specific individual genes.

One of the big areas of interest has been in creating hypoallergenic pets. With cats, for instance, there’s one gene in particular that codes for a protein that is what a lot of humans react to. The idea is, if you could disable this protein, maybe you have a cat that doesn’t cause an allergic reaction.

I think a genetically engineered hypoallergenic cat is something that there would be a lot of demand for, and something I could very easily envision being a hit on the marketplace.

CNN: That’s a very useful purpose, but then again, it raises questions of where the ethical boundaries are.

Anthes: I understand all of the criticism that has been lobbed at genetic technologies, and I think many of them are absolutely valid. We should consider animal welfare, we should consider environmental effects, we should consider human safety.

And there will certainly be cases in which we want to make alterations that are not good for animals, are not good for humans, are not good for the environment, and we should absolutely reject those products.

I think the point I really wanted to make is that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Not every product will be harmful and dangerous, and some might actually be beneficial. I would hate to see these technologies rejected out of hand when there may be some useful applications.

CNN: Where do you think that anxiety about biotechnology stems from?

Anthes: I think there are some different concerns, and some of them are practical even if they get sort of sci-fi esque. [W]hat happens if these modified fish get loose, and what havoc might they wreak?

Then there are more philosophical concerns about, ‘Is this unnatural?’ and then, ‘If it’s unnatural, does that make it wrong?’ And who are we to be, quote-unquote, playing God? That’s a phrase you see all the time in the animal world. Are we sort of unleashing forces that we can’t control? These are all questions that come up again and again.

At the root of it is the fact that this is new and high-tech. … Things that are new are much scarier than things that are old. Things that are quote-unquote, technological are scarier than things that are, quote-unquote, natural. You have a lot of those factors wrapped together when you talk about something like genetic engineering.

CNN: Was there a particular species or experiment that intrigued you as being at the forefront of biotechnology?

Anthes: I think this world of cyborgs is really fascinating, and also very representative of the future. I think a lot of the early work in biotechnology was manipulating biology and the genes that are already there. I think the future in many ways is the mash-up of the living with the nonliving, the biotic with the a-biotic. I think we’re really going to see, for lots of different reasons and in lots of different species, a growth of creatures that combine electronic bits and biological ones.

CNN: Such as the robotic bugs that you were talking about in your book (where scientists are studying how to turn an insect into a device that can be used to gain intelligence for military purposes).

Anthes: That’s one very dramatic example, and I think there will be more of them. But I think there will be less dramatic kinds of cyborgs that will become more and more common. There are a number of therapies being tested for human disease that involve implanting sort of neuro-prosthetics in the brain, and (using) bionic prosthetic limbs. I think it’s going to become more and more mainstream to come across humans or animals that have electronic parts wired into them.

CNN: What do you think are the greatest impacts on a person’s personal life that may come from the latest biotechnology research?

Anthes: I think there’s a lot of potential in this field of canine genetics, which is just growing like crazy. We’re already starting to see some of it: There are commercial labs that can test your dog’s DNA for less than $100, and give you information about what diseases it might be prone to and that can really help you make better medical decisions for your dog. I think this world of care and genetics may help us tackle the world of genetic dog disease, which a lot of research has shown is a huge problem among many breeds of dogs.

CNN: You say in your book that working to create genetically modified animals says something about us. What did you find to be the answer to that when you were done writing?

Anthes: I’m not sure there’s one answer, but it reveals a couple of things.

It shows, for instance, that we imbue our pets with aesthetic value. Sometimes we want to change them just to look nice to us. Sometimes we want to change (animals) just to provide a better service to us, to produce better meat or certain kinds of drugs. Sometimes, we want to change them more out of altruism for their health.

It shows in some ways how complicated our relationships with animals are; that we simultaneously value them for what they give us, but that we also want – or think we want – them to have long, healthy lives for their own sake.

That was something I came back to again and again. The bottom line is that it reveals how complex our feelings are for other species. We don’t want to see them suffer, and yet if their suffering gives us a cure for cancer, then maybe that’s OK. It reveals that we’re deeply conflicted about the role that animals play in our lives.