Steve Mirsky: This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by audible.com, your source for audio books and more. Audible.com features 100,000 titles, including Walter Isaacson’s biography Albert Einstein: His Life and Universe, Narrated by Edward Herrmann and Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything, Narrated Michael York. Right now audible.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, S-C-I-A-M. Steve Mirsky here, welcome back for Part 2 of my conversation with Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. So you also – you have some interesting fish at home.
Emily Anthes: Not anymore. [Laughter]
Steve Mirsky: Oh, well, let’s talk about what they were, first.
Emily Anthes: Sure, so these are glow fish and what’s amazing about them is they’re sort of the first official transgenic pets available on the market in the US and technically they’re zebra fish, which look as you might expect from a fish named zebra fish. They normally have these black-and-white stripes. They’re tiny tropical fish. They’ve been popular in the aquarium industry for decades.
Steve Mirsky: And also in the research labs.
Emily Anthes: Yes, exactly and scientists have doctored them by putting fluorescence genes into them so all these different kinds of marine organisms often naturally make fluorescence proteins that sort of allow them to glow under the right lighting conditions but if you take, say, this jellyfish gene and put it into the zebra fish suddenly what was a black-and-white striped becomes a neon-green one so they’ve made these glow fish in I believe it’s five different colors now and they’re at Petco, Wal-Mart, $5.00 or $6.00 a pop. It’s really sort of amazing to me because it’s the first real animal biotechnology product that’s easily available and accessible to anyone.
Steve Mirsky: And that genetic manipulation is in the germ line and would be passed on to offspring.
Emily Anthes: And that’s actually they breed them so after the first sort of few genetic modification they just have regular fish farmers breeding the fish and so, yeah, I bought some. I bought six. This was maybe three years ago and they were lovely. They were – you know I’d heard all these crazy things about them because they were covered sometimes by the media in a way that made it look like the end was coming because we had these fish and so when I went I actually couldn’t find them at Petco at first, they blended in so well to some of the other fish they had there. It’s like, “Which ones are the genetically modified Frankenfish?”
But I bought some and they were fun. You can get – they actually sell special tanks because they fluoresce the best under blue or black light so you can buy a glow fish kit that has a tank with these lights built in so I had them a for a while and they were nice. I don’t think I’m a great fish farmer because they began to die off slowly but my caveat is I’m pretty sure that was my fault and not a defect of the fish.
Steve Mirsky: Right, this particular genetic manipulation really shouldn’t have any widespread affect other than the color.
Emily Anthes: Right and they did a fair number of studies on fitness and other things and I believe there were slightly less cold-tolerant than normal but that was the only sort of real difference they found.
Steve Mirsky: And we should point out this wasn’t just scientists saying, “Hey, what can we do? Let’s make zebra fish different colors.” Zebra fish have a really basic model organism role in embryology and other kinds of basic research and the fluorescent protein won the Nobel Prize a couple of years because it enables you to follow development paths and in fact I remember talking to a zebra fish researcher – it’s gotta be at least ten years ago – who wanted to use different color fluorescent proteins to tag different parts of the developing embryos so that you could have a color-coded developing embryo.
Emily Anthes: Fascinating.
Steve Mirsky: With a cardiovascular system because zebra fish are also pretty much transparent.
Emily Anthes: Transparent, right.
Steve Mirsky: They have the zebra-like markings on the outside but you can see their internal organs and what the researcher wanted to do was to have the cardiovascular system be developing in red and the musculature be developing in blue and so you could actually have your embryology students watch the embryo develop. It develops really quickly – a couple of days – and you could watch it color-coded so it would really bring home the idea of what primary cells are then developing into which systems so the pet version is just an outgrowth of all that actual basic, legitimate research that has the potential to do a lot of good stuff.
Emily Anthes: Right, scientists were creating these fish for a variety of reasons as you point out and these entrepreneurs just sort of came forward and licensed the technology to sell them as fish but that’s not why the technology was developed.
Steve Mirsky: Right, you know when the regular news media gets hold of these stories, it makes it sound like for one thing the federal government is giving millions of dollars to pointy-headed lunatics so that they can make mice that have eyes growing on their – or ears growing on their – backs, you know, and there’s no context for it that indicates what it’s good for so you’ve talked about how you’re – the kind of conflicted feelings you have about this stuff because you might be creating a line of mice that’s gonna have a pretty horrible life. The idea is to try to develop a model for a disease so that we can figure out how to deal with that disease in humans so that humans will have a less-horrible life.
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: And that raises a lot of issues for a lot of people and it’s not just related to the genetic manipulation part but as you point out you’re not a vegetarian.
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: So.
Emily Anthes: And neither are most Americans and most Americans sort of as conflicted as they feel and as much as they love animals except some basic use of animals in research. I mean it’s another nuanced issue where most people, you know, there are a lot of people who don’t’ want to test cosmetics on animals but would happily sacrifice a million mice if it found us a cure for cancer so it’s not easy to have these blanket ethical positions. It’s a nuanced problem.
Steve Mirsky: Right and if you’re growing animals to try to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s it’s different than if you’re growing them just to eat them and it’s also different if you’re growing them to try to find a cure for male-pattern baldness as you point out. Somehow that seems less urgent.
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: Of course I [crosstalk] [laughter] --
Emily Anthes: If you’re a balding male, perhaps it’s very urgent.
Steve Mirsky: Right I’m not suffering from that but on the other hand the male-pattern baldness mouse is probably not suffering to the extent that the neurologically-disabled mouse is.
Emily Anthes: Right, I mean and that’s why you sort of have to look at each case, individually, which is hard because there are so many cases and, say, like, in this particular instance, what are the benefits, what are the costs and how does it shake out because it – the calculations – won’t always be the same.
Steve Mirsky: So Frankenstein’s cat, was that a kind of homage to Schrödinger’s cat?
Emily Anthes: It wasn’t sort of an intentional attempt to reference it but we obviously knew it would have that echo. It wasn’t a deliberate connection, I guess.
Steve Mirsky: And are they doing anything with cats in particular? They’re trying to make that allergenic or hypoallergenic cat for the last 30 years. I know they were trying to do it with regular breeding.
Emily Anthes: Right and some cloned cats, a glowing-green cat with that fluorescent protein but not so much. We’re seeing similar in dogs than in cats, I think.
Steve Mirsky: Let’s talk about the cloning, the pet cloning thing.
Emily Anthes: Mmm-hmm.
Steve Mirsky: I mean this is actually going on now where you can have Fido cloned.
Emily Anthes: If you have enough money.
Steve Mirsky: If you’ve got enough. I mean it’s really expensive, right?
Emily Anthes: Six figures, yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Right? I mean so you’re talking at least $100,000.00.
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: And as some comedian said when Wilmut did Dolly, “Oh great, a sheep that’s just like other sheep,” [laughter] you know?
Emily Anthes: [Laughter] Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: I mean the very definition of sheep is that they’re all the same, you know?
Emily Anthes: Hadn’t thought of that.
Steve Mirsky: You people are a bunch of sheep.
Emily Anthes: Right.
Steve Mirsky: So what would be the purpose? You’re not getting the same animal back.
Emily Anthes: Correct.
Steve Mirsky: You’re getting a twin back.
Emily Anthes: Right and it’s just like a twin. I mean if you’ve met human identical twins, they have their own personalities, they have. Even if they’re identical twins, as clones do they have subtle physical differences. It’s not the same. I think the idea is that if you have enough disposable income that you can afford this and you really had a bond with your animal then it’s the best that I can understand it is it’s some way of honoring that animal by having its DNA live on.
There’s something comforting about that. I mean I don’t really get it. It’s not something I would do with my dogs but I think it can be powerful for some people.
Steve Mirsky: Is the money at least used to support some interesting research?
Emily Anthes: It’s really hard to say. I mean these are the only two commercial dog-cloning companies around are in Korea and they’re commercial companies and I don’t know how transparent they are with it so I don’t really know where the money goes. I suspect most of it goes to the companies and the more animal cloning but I don’t know.
Steve Mirsky: So let me ask you to do the hackneyed thing here and predict the future, which is never gonna be – never gonna work out – the way you might think but where do you think things are gonna be 20 years from now in this whole – are we gonna have just a slew of farm animals with human genes in them? Are we gonna have our secret platoon of drone insects that send us video back from the battlefront?
Emily Anthes: Well I think 20 years is not a super-long time. I think we will see all of these technologies advance. We will see more animals producing pharmaceutical proteins I think. Right now there’s one of those drugs on the market. I think we’ll see more of those for sure.
I think cloning will become more mainstream, maybe not for pets but it’s becoming increasingly popular for livestock. The international governing body that regulates horse competitions has just cleared the way for cloned horses to compete in the Olympics so I think we’ll see sort of sporting animals cloned. I think we’ll see all that advance. I don’t think any of these technologies will be quote unquote “mainstream” yet. I think cloning will still be a minority of animals that are created. I think we might have a handful of GM animal drugs but not a medicine-cabinet full but we’re definitely moving in that direction and I think we’ll see more and more of these products make their way out of the lab and into our actual lives, which is just starting to happen and the research has been going on for a few decades and you’re finally starting to see things come to market from that.
Steve Mirsky: So there’s a chance we might have another secretariat that’s a carbon-copy of the original secretariat.
Emily Anthes: Right, that’s an interesting thing, you know, and in the book I talk about some thought experiments about what about a Kentucky Derby where every entrant is a clone of a past winner or perhaps all clones of the same winner, you know?
Steve Mirsky: Now that’s the whole enterprise is now worth it to see eight secretariats go off at Belmont.
Emily Anthes: Right and in some ways that would be a great illustration of the importance of nurture and training because they all have the same genetic gifts to start with so what causes these, you know? It’d be interesting experiment, good spectacle.
Steve Mirsky: I’m just trying to imagine the announcer, “And he’s off.”
Emily Anthes: I’m not familiar enough with the announcements to get it so excuse me.
Steve Mirsky: What a fun idea. Well if we’re thinking about stuff like that can you imagine what professional researchers are contemplating?
Emily Anthes: Yes and no. I mean, yeah, I cannot imagine what they’re contemplating. I think often they’re not as interested in those sorts of commercial – and that takes – researchers figure out some technology and then entrepreneurs or someone comes in and is like, “Let’s stage a race of, like, eight secretariats” but I’m sure they’ve got some other ideas up their sleeves, the researchers, that we can’t even begin to imagine.
Steve Mirsky: Well, let’s just hope that what they don’t do is that at the end of the Donald Sutherland “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” where the little dog has the human face on it. That we don’t want.
Emily Anthes: No.
Steve Mirsky: I think we can all agree that that we don’t want.
Emily Anthes: I think I prefer dog faces.
Steve Mirsky: I’ve been talking with Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. It’s one of the books in the new Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To see other titles in the series, such as Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths and Daniel Chamovitz’s What a Plant Knows, visit www.books.scientificamerican.com. When you go there you’ll also see our new line of e-books available in Kindle, Nook or Apple iBooks formats. We’ll be back right after this word from Kerri Smith at The Nature Podcast.
Kerri Smith: On this week’s Nature Podcast, the future of scientific publishing, crystallography without the crystals and how carbon dioxide escapes from the deep ocean.
Steve Mirsky: Just go to www.nature.com/podcast.
Steve Mirsky: Well that’s it for this episode. Until next time get your science news at our website: www.scientificamerican.com where you can find Calla Cofield’s piece celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great mathematician Paul Erdős. The article is titled “An Arbitrary Number of Years Since Mathematician Paul Erdős’s Birth,” and follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new article hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam, S-C-I-A-M. For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
[End of Audio]