Emily Anthes is a journalist who has written for many science journals including Wired, Discover, and Scientific American and also has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT. In this book, she explores the many ways in which animals are involved with the latest advances in biotechnology. She has a breezy, easy-to-understand writing style, and I was impressed with the breadth of her knowledge and research (includes over 40 pages of footnotes). I enjoyed reading about the specific contributions to this science that many animals like Jonathan Sealwart, an elephant seal, and Artemis the goat are making, and her visits to some of them were often quite humorous.
The production of genetically altered (transgenic) animals is perhaps the most controversial use of biotech. I was very interested in learning how some pretty-colored tropical fish won over a skeptical public in the U.S. to become the first and only transgenic animals sold in this country. These fish are called GloFish and they are derived from 2 types of tropical fish that are commonly sold in the US, zebra fish and white skirt tetras. What makes them unique is that they have an added dose of DNA from sea anemone or sea coral that make them glow in red, green and purple colors. I have enjoyed the aquarium hobby for years, and if GloFish can bring new people in to the hobby (like the author) all the better. I have also had my eye on one of the purple tetra GloFish and would like to add it to one of my aquariums. I just hope my 4 large angelfish don’t think he is a brightly colored dinner treat.
A much more promising use of these new animals is in “pharming,” where their DNA is manipulated so that their bodies can create medicinal properties. Transgenic goats can produce milk with elevated levels of lysozyme, which has been found to be an effective treatment for diarrhea, a deadly disease that kills over 2 million children every year. These goats have also been used to produce antithrombin, an anticoagulant that can successfully treat life threatening blood clots. It is unfortunate that none of these pharming techniques have been approved in the United States, though other countries like Brazil are taking the lead in this type of biotech.
I appreciated the author’s thorough review of the many ethical considerations in the use of transgenic animals and other types of biotech. She discounts the “Are we playing God” notion with these new animals by arguing that we have already tried to play God for thousands of years by manipulating the various types of animals through selective breeding. The results have not always been good, as is the case with canis lupus familiaris, the common dog, where we’ve created hundreds of unique breeds of dogs, many of which are saddled with crippling genetic diseases and conditions.
One of the most important factors to consider is how the biotech affects the livelihood of the animals involved. Bernard Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University considers their fate with his “conservation of welfare” ethic: “If you’re going to modify a line of animals, the resultant animals should be no worse off from a welfare point of view – and preferably better.” The author thinks that most pharming animals would be able to pass this test, since studies show that genetic alteration does little to curtail their longevity and overall health. But she gives numerous examples of transgenic animals that would fail this test, including transgenic mice produced in Chinese labs with thousands of different kinds of deformities caused by messing with one strand of their DNA.
If you read the book you will learn of other unique ways biotech is being used in the world of animals. You will learn why cats are far superior to dogs in the process of cloning. You will learn about a group of volunteers who helped design a prosthetic tail for a baby bottlenose dolphin after it got trapped and nearly died in a crab trap. And finally you will want to learn how a poor, lonely elephant seal got a name and got hundreds of friends on Facebook all through a sophisticated process of wildlife tracking.
Check the WRL catalog for Frankenstein’s Cat