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Our Furry Friends Now Are Shaped by Biotechnology

Author Emily Anthes discusses her book Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave Beasts, out this week in paperback
Emily Anthes with dog
Emily Anthes with dog


American science journalist and author Emily Anthes with her dog, Milo.
Image courtesy of Nina Subin

Originally posted on SoapBox Science, a community guest blog from Nature.com

Emily Anthes is a science journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Scientific American, Psychology Today, BBC Future, SEED, Discover, Popular Science, Slate, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

Her book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, is out in paperback today published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It received the 2014 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. 

Emily is also the author of the Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

Her blog post, “When a deaf man has Tourette’s,” was selected for inclusion in The Open Laboratory 2010: The Best of Science Writing on the Web.  

Emily has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT and a bachelor’s degree in the history of science and medicine from Yale, where she also studied creative writing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her dog, Milo.

“It all started with an image of a cyborg remote controlled pigeon…” are not the everyday words of an author’s main inspiration behind their latest book, but then Emily Anthes’ ‘Frankenstein’s Cat – Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts’, is not your average creation.

When the American science journalist started her journey exploring the technological advances in the world of biotechnology, more than three years ago, she had conflicting views of her own on the reengineering of animals’ bodies. On the one hand, she was very pro-science and found the development of technologies “incredibly promising.” But on the other Anthes was also a keen animal enthusiast. “I started seeing increasingly more stories on the crazy things science could do to animals and how these new tools were reshaping animal bodies into cyborgs or using them to collect oceanographic data,” says Anthes. “The book was a way to address these conflicting feelings and attempt to figure out what these technologies really mean for animals’ lives.”

Anthes set out to define biotechnology broadly, looking at genetic engineering, prosthetic devices and wildlife tagging. But her endeavours started closest to home at her local pet store. “I thought GloFish, America’s first genetically engineered pets, were a good starting point into the world of genetic engineering. It could introduce the themes and look at the benign application of this technology”, notes the resident New Yorker. “There are often two very strong viewpoints on biotechnology – that it is either this apocalyptic force that will destroy all good, or that it’s the solution to everything. Yet there is a much more nuanced reality that we live in, that lies somewhere in between these two extremes.”

GloFish, America’s first genetically engineered pets.
Image Courtesy of Yorktown Technologies

Changing Technologies
As Anthes explores the future of biotechnology, coming across sensor-wearing seals, a bionic bulldog and the world’s first cloned cat along the way, you get a sense of how rapidly specific technologies are progressing. This is something which even Anthes admits really took her by surprise. “I was aware at the time of how much advanced work was happening in the labs, but was surprised just how quickly some of these technologies and products were becoming available to the public”, declares Anthes. “The idea that you can now buy a transgenic fish in a pet store or that there are drugs on the market that have been produced in the milk of genetically engineered animals, repeatedly astounded me.”

However, one area of technology Anthes highlights as growing incredibly fast is the match up of the biotic and the abiotic – integrating electronics into living systems, not only in animals but also in humans. One example is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)‘s funding of research to develop cyborg beetles that could potentially be used to detect explosives in enemy territories. “Essentially as our knowledge of the brain and the nervous system has improved and electronics have got smaller, lighter and more sophisticated it has become possible to hack into the nervous systems of other creatures,” says Anthes. DARPA is implanting wires into beetles’ brains attaching them to a circuit board mounted on the insects’ backs. They are also adding radio antennas which allow the creature to be remote-controlled from a distance.

“The idea is that if we can control the movement of insects through mounting surveillance equipment such as cameras, microphones and environmental sensors on their backs – we can essentially fly them into enemy territory, caves, or occupied buildings to gather information for human analysts to assess”, notes Anthes. “Scientists have come up with many other ways to use this technology now, most notably in search and rescue missions. For example, following an earthquake, you could put a temperature sensor on the back of a beetle and steer it through the rubble to detect objects that are around human body temperature. This could lead rescue teams to trapped survivors.”

Mr Green Genes. The first fluorescent cat created in the United States.
Image Courtesy of Audubon Nature Institute

Mutant Mice
One of the most surreal examples Anthes gives in the book on genetic modification lies in China, where she observes the mass production of mutant mice.  Here she describes how scientists are creating thousands upon thousands of odd animals, disabling their rodent genes, creating both visual and behavioral quirks and abnormalities.

“In recent years scientists have been developing all sorts of new technologies to control genetic modification much more precisely and generate genetically modified organisms at a much quicker rate,” says Anthes. “In Chinese laboratories they are trying to individually mutate every gene in the mouse genome creating a repository of mutant mice that has every possible gene disabled. Only after creating the mutant mice do scientists figure out what gene has been disrupted and what has gone wrong.”

Frozen Zoos
The theme of cloning plays an important role in the future debate of biotechnology and is an issue many of the scientists, conservationist and ethicists Anthes meets bring up in their encounters. Anthes talks very broadly around the subject area including the cloning of pets, livestock and how the technology is being used to preserve endangered species. It is the latter that is so powerfully brought to life in her descriptions of a “frozen zoo”, where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures.

“Using cloning to save endangered species seems so simple and straightforward. Yet it is of course not that easy, as conservationists and ecologists know that endangered species face lots of other issues, including a lack of genetic diversity, which cloning doesn’t solve”, says Anthes. Nonetheless there are many scientists who believe cloning could be an “incredible” tool for conservation. “Frozen zoos collect cells and DNA samples that almost serve as an insurance policy if a certain lineage of species dies out.  If scientists have a genome or cell from that particular lineage they can potentially thaw it out and create a clone, bringing back that genetic diversity into the population. There is no harm in at least collecting this genetic information while we have it.”

Anthes describes how one scientist compellingly argued how for some species that are extremely endangered, the sad truth may be it is too late to save them. She recalls the scientist said that if we start collecting DNA from lots of species that aren’t even endangered yet, we have a security net and those genetic resources if something were to happen in the future.

RoboRoach
Throughout her adventure she discovered and was touched by how craft prosthetics were being used to save injured animals, but one of her most memorable moments was outside a Massachusetts cafe with a remote controlled cockroach. “I met with the founders of Backyard Brains, the company behind the RoboRoach,” brims Anthes. The RoboRoach has gained lots of attention in the media and online for its innovation, but also for what some critics argued its ignorance towards ethics. “It was incredibly surreal to be controlling the movements of a cockroach on a sidewalk.”

For the freelance journalist and author there was also a serious side to all the fun and ultimately surreal moments. One of her primary aims was to raise stimulating debate on the uses of biotechnology on animals looking at both the risks and the benefits. Anthes concludes there are no easy solutions, but the most sensible way forward is to assess each product and application on its own – weighing up the different factors – such as what’s in the best interests of humans, animals and environments.

“It is important to not just think of the argument as humans vs animals as there are more complicated calculations, such as the interests of one animal versus the interests of an entire species. One example could be in wildlife tracking and tagging where it may not be comfortable for an elephant seal to be tagged as it could cause irritation or abrasions. Yet, on the other hand, that data from the device could potentially be used to help protect the entire population of elephant seals. We should look at both the risks of using this technology and the dangers if we don’t.”


The RoboRoach
Image Courtesy of Emily Anthes

Wider Debate
It is a fascinating debate, which following the book’s release in hardback a year ago, has sparked much interest. Through doing readings and talks across US cities, Anthes has been taken aback by the amount of engaged questions and excitement around the subject matter. “The response has been really exciting and it has prompted wide discussion on many of the issues raised in the book, says Anthes. “I never set out for people to agree with my views.  The book is prompting a larger discussion and to that end I’ve been amazed by how many engaged questions I’ve had from audience members. I’ve been part of some really inspiring discussions with lots of people trying to make sense of all these technologies and figure out a way forward.”

And that leads us back to where it all started, at the cyborg pigeon. This may well be an image that no longer shocks or surprises us as a society, but still reflects the enormous leap in technological advances over recent years. “It was really rewarding to put together all these disparate pieces and headlines and dive incredibly deeply into all the nuances that are often overlooked or put to one side. There is so much potential in the future, we just need to be open minded,” concludes Anthes.

‘Frankenstein’s Cat – Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts’ is out in paperback today. For further details and other titles published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, visit here.

The winner of the 2014 Advancing Science, Serving Society/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books for Young Adults.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Nature SoapBox Science blog. The article was first published on April 8, 2014.

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