Steve Mirsky: This Scientific American Podcast is brought to you by audible.com, your source for audio books and more. Audible.com features more than 100,000 titles, including science books you’ve been meaning to check out, like Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves and Richard Panek’s The Four Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover The Rest of Reality. Right now audio.com is offering a free audio book and a 1-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience, for details go to audible.com/sciam. Welcome to the Scientific American Podcast Science Talk hosted on March 26th, 2013. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode --
Emily Anthes: Putting a single human gene in a goat doesn’t make that goat a human in the same way it’s routine procedure now for a lot of human heart patients to get a pig valve and that doesn’t make them a pig.
Steve Mirsky: That’s Emily Anthes. She’s a science journalist whose writings have appeared in Scientific American as well as Wired, Discover and other publications. She’s also the author of the new book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. It’s a Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux title. We spoke at the Scientific American offices. Emily, these wacky scientists [crosstalk] --
Emily Anthes: [Laughter]
Steve Mirsky: [Laughter] What are they up to?
Emily Anthes: A little bit of everything, as I found out. It’s genetic modifying, genetically modifying pretty much everything in every way you can imagine: Cloning animals, implanting sensors in their bodies, hijacking their brains and their nervous systems. If they can dream it, they’re starting to be able to do it. Really the things of science fiction are starting to become reality.
Steve Mirsky: What struck me is that some of this stuff has been going on for decades but in, let’s say, bacteria, we’ll insert a gene into bacteria to get the bacteria to produce a desired product but now that we’re doing it in goats for example a lot of people are very edgy about this prospect.
Emily Anthes: Right and I’m not sure even that many people know that drugs are currently made in bacteria.
Steve Mirsky: Exactly.
Emily Anthes: I think if people did they might not be too pleased with it but of course the bigger the animal you get the cuter it gets, the more it has sort of human sympathies the more disturbed people seem to be by these procedures and processes.
Steve Mirsky: Why don’t talk about what’s going on with the goats.
Emily Anthes: Sure, so it’s field known as pharming with a “PH” for pharmaceuticals and farming and essentially it’s a way to produce pharmaceutical products. A lot of the compounds that our bodies naturally make are good medicine but they’re hard to produce on an industrial scale. They’re complicated proteins, they have to be folded just so and have special sugars on them and bacteria aren’t very good at making them and it’s hard to make them in cell culture so scientists realized that they might be able to get dairy animals to make them. They make all these complicated proteins in their milk so in one project, for instance, there are these goats in California and they’ve been engineered to make high levels of lysozyme in their milk. Lysozyme is an anti-microbial protein and it may be responsible for some of the sort of protective effects of human breast milk.
It’s very concentrated in breast milk.
Steve Mirsky: And what it does is in its name, it lyses cells, it explodes cells.
Emily Anthes: Right, bacterial cells in particular so things like E. coli and other sort of nasty microbes that you don’t wanna be infected with and so the idea is if you give kids this sort of lysozyme supercharged GM goat’s milk that maybe it will burst the bacteria that they’re infected with, maybe it could be used to treat or prevent diarrheal disease, which is a big problem in the developing world.
Steve Mirsky: And again a similar kind of procedure to make other things has been done in bacteria for a long time but now that we can do it and as you said certain substances may be harder to do in bacteria than others and mammals, which are closer to us, are a better kind of venue to try to do that in and so in some ways it’s a win/win. The goats themselves seem to benefit from it as well.
Emily Anthes: They do and that’s always a concern with engineering is how is it gonna affect the animal but, in this case, because it’s an antimicrobial protein, as it happens, it seems to protect the goat from various infections of the udder and these goats also seem to have pretty normal lives as far normal as any other dairy animal so they don’t really know that they’re these engineered creatures or that they’re making his protein in their milk, they’re just going about their daily goat lives.
Steve Mirsky: [Laughter] Daily goat lives.
Emily Anthes: Exactly.
Steve Mirsky: One thing that comes up sometimes, I don’t know if it gets discussed maybe as much as I think it should is that these creatures - domesticated animals, especially - are not natural anyway, in a way. We have been designing these animals for thousands of years, we just haven’t been able to do it with the precision and the delicacy that we do now. Whenever you breed a strain of agricultural animal for a specific purpose, you’re doing the same kinda thing but on a grosser level.
Emily Anthes: Exactly and I mean that’s one of the things I wanted to do in the book is sort of put these developments in context. They absolutely are an escalation of our powers and, as you say, they give us new precision, they allow us to make these changes faster than we might otherwise make them but we’ve been shaping animals for millennia so the ethical questions that that raises about meddling or playing God or those sort of critiques you often hear, those aren’t new questions. They’re things that could be applied to what we’ve been doing and we’ve managed to do plenty of harm with selective breeding as well. It’s not just biotechnology that gives us tools to do harm.
Steve Mirsky: Right, the Frankenstein’s cat is outta the bag if you will [crosstalk] --
Emily Anthes: Exactly.
Steve Mirsky: on that issue. This is just a way to do it much faster and better because if you do it with traditional breeding you have to wait generates and maybe dozens, maybe even hundreds of generations. This way you can do it in one generation, if you’re lucky.
Emily Anthes: And there may be things you just plain can’t do with selective breeding. I mean when you start to talk about bringing in genes from other species or a particular gene in a particular spot, you may never be able to get there with selective breeding.
Steve Mirsky: Well, people might freak out because we’ve put a human gene into the goat and lemme tell you a story.
Emily Anthes: Sure.
Steve Mirsky: About ten years ago I was having a discussion with some people and the subject came up, I can’t remember the real details but a fish protein, I believe, that had the effect of keeping ice cream smoother so that it wouldn’t crystalize when it was in the freezer for too long was being added to some brands of ice cream. I think that’s it. Even if it isn’t the case, as a hypothetical, can still work so somebody I knew said, “Well, I wouldn’t wanna eat ice cream that had fish protein in it,” and I said, “Do you have any idea how much of you is fish protein?”
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: I mean we already share, you know, lemme pull a number outta my hat. If we’re 99 percent the same as a chimp, we’re, like, 90 percent the same as a goat, genetically so what’s the big deal out of making us 90.000001 percent the same as a goat?
Emily Anthes: Right, it’s threatening I think to a lot of people this idea first of all that we could make our own DNA work in another species sort of threatens the idea of human uniqueness and human superlativeness, which of course there is nothing that unique about it at the genetic level. The whole point of the genetic code is that it’s these four letters and they are the same in all these species and the fact that you can swap genes around makes people nervous and there are legitimate concerns, ethically, when you start to talk about getting into the brain and perhaps creating creatures that aren’t fully animal and aren’t fully human.
Steve Mirsky: Right, like, did you see that movie Deep Blue Sea [crosstalk] --
Emily Anthes: I did not.
Steve Mirsky: where they make the really smart sharks and the sharks kill everybody?
Emily Anthes: No.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, so it’s like that.
Emily Anthes: I see.
Steve Mirsky: Well?
Emily Anthes: But I mean the point is that not every tweak causes those same concerns. Putting a single human gene in a goat doesn’t make that goat a human, the same way it’s routine procedure now for a lot of human heart patients to get a pig valve and that doesn’t make them a pig so it’s I understand the concern but I also think that if you really think about it and break it down that it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, your title is Frankenstein’s Cat, which sounds a little ominous but then your subtitle is Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts to kind of indicate there are two sides to this whole business.
Emily Anthes: Right, right and that’s one of the things I wanted to do is provide a nuanced look at these advances and I think there’s a lot of coverage of sort the apocalyptic potential of biotechnology and some people talk about the good but these are technologies that are very often viewed in black-and-white, you know? “All cloning is good,” “all cloning is bad,” and so on and my point is that you can’t make such blanket statements. You really need to get into the nitty-gritty of each proposed application and evaluate it on its own merits. It’s just sort of a tool or a technique and it doesn’t have a lot of ethical meaning on its own.
Steve Mirsky: what kind of regulatory systems are in place? I mean you can’t - as a researcher can you just say, “Well, I’m gonna put in the gene - human growth hormone gene - into my dairy cattle and nobody can tell me not to?”
Emily Anthes: No there are people who can tell you not to. There are sort of some general animal-welfare laws in the US that cover sort of general aspects of how lab animals can be treated and what researchers have to provide for them but animal research, at the institutional level, is also governed the same way that some human research is, which is institutional review boards and there has to be some compelling scientific interest or benefit. You have to sort of make a case that someone’s gonna benefit from this so you’re not just screwing around for the sake of it.
Steve Mirsky: Is there a way for any let’s say not an academic setting but in a corporate setting for researchers to do some kind of transgenic that nobody would know about?
Emily Anthes: I’m sure you could. I think if you sort of don’t take federal system in any way it loosens you from some restrictions but, in theory there is still sort of some basic animal welfare regulations that you’re supposed to comply with but it gets much harder to regulate and police sort of outside a university system or something like that.
Steve Mirsky: Speaking of human growth hormone you talk about this attempt to insert human growth hormone into a line of pigs.
Emily Anthes: Yes.
Steve Mirsky: And that didn’t go so great.
Emily Anthes: That did not go so great. It was one of the first sort of attempts to reengineer animals genetically to be more useful to us and the idea was that these pigs would be pork, they would be meat and that if you put a human growth hormone gene in them, they might be leaner, they’d grow faster, they would require less food and, in all those ways, the experiment was a success but for reasons that are still a little bit unclear it seemed to cause every health problem in the book in these pigs, you know, arthritis, eye problems, early death, thickened skin, I mean everything that you can think of so it’s sort of one of the cases that’s often held up is how animals can suffer as a result of these things.
Steve Mirsky: What I don’t understand is why the impulse to use human growth hormone when there’s a pig growth hormone, so why did they - why not just up their levels of porcine growth hormone before jumping over to HGH?
Emily Anthes: That’s a good question. I don’t know what the thinking was behind that. I mean it could’ve been those were earlier days of genetic research. It could’ve been something as simple as the practical matter of perhaps HGH had already been cloned in a lab and the pig growth hormone hadn’t. It might’ve just been easier to access, you know?
I’m not sure what the theory was behind it.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah that makes sense because if I’m trying to make a bigger and better pig maybe I’ll just use their own growth hormone.
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: That seems to be the logical thing to do. Anyway you also talk about these insects that are being made sort of cyborgian or bionic - bionic not biotic - and insects are kinda creepy anyway.
Emily Anthes: Exactly and that’s - I think that absolutely contributes to the sci-fi apocalyptic aspect of these things.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah so they’ve created, like cockroaches that you can use a remote control and make them go left and right.
Emily Anthes: Exactly and even some slightly more sophisticated things with beetles and moths in university labs, they can not only make them go left and right but they can force them to start flying and stop flying and the idea is that you could use these sort of cyborg insects the way you might use a tiny little drone perhaps to send them into some sort of inhospitable territory or dangerous place you wouldn’t want humans to go and scope out the scene, collect and transmit surveillance data sort of both for the military and potentially for civilian uses. That’s a little speculative at this point. Our control over them is still pretty crude so they’re not quite battle-ready but that’s the idea.
Steve Mirsky: And this is DARPA’s working on this?
Emily Anthes: DARPA funded the original research. I heard recently that DARPA had sort of moved on because drone - as drone - technology has advanced they’re sort of I don’t know if they’re still actively throwing money at it. The researchers are still doing this work but the original grants may have expired from DARPA.
Steve Mirsky: DARPA is the defense [crosstalk] --
Emily Anthes: Yes, it’s the Pentagon’s sort of research and development arm and they definitely were the impetus for this research, you know, whether they still are hoping to use it or whether they’ve moved on to something else I’m not totally sure.
Steve Mirsky: And you actually got a chance to remote-control a roach, right?
Emily Anthes: Right and so one of the interesting things to me and the surprises for me in doing this research was how fast some of these super cutting edge technologies are trickling out to the public and so there are these university researchers who are doing these cyborg insects but there’s also a company that’s sprung up called Backyard Brains that sort of makes these tools available to the general public so for $100.00 you can go online and order this RoboRoach and sort of have your own cyborg insect so I met with the founders of that company and they brought some of their RoboRoaches and we sort of steered them around the sidewalk in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Steve Mirsky: So you can order the roach and --?
Emily Anthes: Well, the kit doesn’t actually include the roaches. You can order the roaches separately. You have to so this company’s mission is to sort of improve neuroscience education and give people real hands-on access to the tools of neuroscience so part of that is constructing it yourself so it comes with all the parts you need and there it’s actually very simple but there are videos online for how you build the roach and you order the roaches separately and you can sort of put this critter together.
Steve Mirsky: Well, how do you actually do it? Don’t you have to put something into their brains?
Emily Anthes: Well so the reason they chose cockroaches is because they’re as they say, quote, practically designed to be a cyborg. They use their antenna as sort of for a whole bunch of navigational functions and the antenna are actually just hollow, fluid-filled tubes so you anesthetize the cockroach, I wanna point that out, and while it’s under you snip off the ends of its antenna and you just thread a wire into each one and that’s it. Then any impulse you send down the antenna essentially goes straight into their nervous system. It’s surprisingly easy.
Steve Mirsky: Wow it makes me - there’s this commercial where some dopey guy uses all of his accumulated credit-card points to get himself a weather balloon and take video of the weather balloon going up and his friend says, “You used all your points on a weather balloon,” and the guy says, “Yes, I did,” and I always imagine his friend saying, “You idiot.”
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: But it’d be a much better use of his points to go get one of these roaches and [crosstalk] --
Emily Anthes: And they’re not that expensive. I don’t even know that you need that many points.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, have your $100.00 roach and you show it to your friends and then it scurries away and it’s off in the wild or in the baseboards of your house.
Emily Anthes: Yes, perhaps baseboards of your house. It’s also I mean it’s I guess reversible if you will. Like you have these wires and then the circuit board you actually just - it was funny to see these entrepreneurs and scientists just whip out the hot-glue gun because you just glue the circuit board to their back so when they’re done - at least when they’re done - with theirs they pull the circuit board off and they just go back to their roach lives, so.
Steve Mirsky: Right and there’s no genetic manipulation so [crosstalk] --
Emily Anthes: Right it’s not like they’re gonna give birth to little cyborg roaches.
Steve Mirsky: Right and they’re not gonna breed out there with the other roaches, no contagion will pass on.
Emily Anthes: I think they also have very short lifespans so they might not breed at all.
Steve Mirsky: I’m sure they do after your amateur surgery.
Emily Anthes: Well, yes.
Steve Mirsky: That’s it for Part with Emily Anthes about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. We’ll be back in a jiff with Part 2.
[End of Audio]