April 5, 2013
What Once Was Sci-Fi Is Present-Day Technology
What do fish, cats, a dolphin, and a roach have in common? Well, in this case, biotechnology binds them all because each of the above species have been genetically engineered in one way or another, according to a CNN report.
CNN discussed the potential, future, and ethics of biotechnology with Emily Anthes, author of a new book on the topic called Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. The book discusses many new advances in biotechnology including the aforementioned fish, cat, dolphin, and roach.
Let’s start with the roach. The RoboRoach is a real cockroach that has been wired with circuitry that allows a handler to move it by remote control. Anthes explains in her book that the RoboRoach could be used by scientists and military personnel to gain intelligence and other data for studies. It is a real, live roach with technology wired into it. A cyborg insect!
Another cyborg of sorts discussed in the CNN article is a dolphin with a prosthetic tail. The dolphin, named Winter, lost most of its tail in a crab-trap line, which normally would have been a death sentence; however, scientists developed a prosthetic tail for the mammal that allowed it to function as normal. Plus, the scientists developed a prosthetic gel that human amputees now use on their artificial limbs because it has a stronger grip. Through animal biotechnology, a dolphin’s life was saved and humans gained benefits. What a win-win situation.
By the way, Winter was the inspiration for the 2011 movie called “Dolphin Tale.” Though I have not seen it, I now would like to learn more about the science that came from this experience.
Let’s move from cyborgs to genetic engineering. The fish and cat mentioned earlier actually have much in common in this instance. Both have been genetically engineered to contain a fluorescent protein gene. The fish, called GloFish, will glow when under a black light in a darkened room. Forget the black light posters on the wall and stars on the ceiling; this takes the black light room to a whole new level…the living level. The cat, on the other hand, has a fluorescence gene that makes it glow under an ultraviolet light.
I really do not understand the practical uses for either the glowing fish or the cat, but the fact that they were genetically engineered to have a fluorescence gene is pretty amazing. I wonder if they can do that with humans. That would give music festivals a whole different feel!?!
The last biotech cat is one that is genetically engineered to be hypoallergenic. Anthes said it best with, “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 that if you could disable this protein, maybe you have a cat that doesn’t cause an allergic reaction.”
Each of these biotech beasts begs the question of ethics. Is it ethical to use biotechnology on animals? Anthes explores that in her interview with CNN. “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.”
She goes on to say that experimenting on animals is complicated as are our feelings about biotechnology. On the one hand, we do not want to see animals suffer; on the other hand, if their suffering brings cures for diseases like cancer, then we are not quite sure whether or not that is so bad.
Perhaps we all see the need for research and study, but we do not want to see anything suffer needlessly. I am against testing on animals, but I also would not want to stand in the way of a cure. It makes for a complicated discussion of the future of animal biotechnology.
Regardless of the complexity, I think we will just continue to see more and more biotech advances, which will likely be pretty cool.