In her 2013 book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts
, science writer Emily Anthes takes readers on a tour of recent advancements in the field of animal genetic engineering. Although humans have spent millennia influencing the genes of the animals that we domesticate or farm, the complexity of what we can now achieve has grown in scope and depth. Animal genes are being manipulated for a variety of purposes – for serious, possible life-saving research into human disease and treatment, all the way to cosmetic and an aesthetically-driven desire to perfect pet appearance. Anthes discusses the field without judgment or moral turpitude, leaving it up to the reader to decide on the ethics of the questions and facts she examines.
The book is divided into seven chapters. In the first, “Go Fish,” Anthes plunges into the world of designer pets. She lays out current trends such as the creation of glowing zebrafish – made when a researcher infused the DNA from fluorescent jellyfish into the zebrafish embryos. Now branded “Glo-Fish,” these transgenic pets are available in pet stores – as are cats specially designed to look like miniature tigers, another example of genetic engineering done purely for the visual it creates.
The second chapter is titled “Got Milk?” because it tackles a different kind of scientific breakthrough – one that seems on the face of it much more palatable than mucking around with DNA just to bring a little sparkle to consumer fish tanks. Anthes interviews researchers who have figured out how to insert a gene into goats that makes the milk they produce contain the enzyme lysozyme, a powerful antibacterial agent. According to the researchers, this makes the resulting milk have almost limitless medical applications (as other genes are added to produce other helpful properties in the milk). Similarly, a different set of scientists working for a company called AquaAdvantage, has developed a way to genetically modify salmon to grow to full size twice as quickly as normal in order to meet fish-eating needs. Although neither the goat milk nor the salmon has FDA approval yet, the success of both is fueling similar work throughout the country.
In the chapter “Double Trouble,” Anthes considers the world of cloning, which is being used for farm animals, as well as domesticated and endangered ones. The possible advantages of making an exact duplicate of a well-built and productive work animal are obvious – it’s not surprising that this technology has been in use for farmers. Similarly, it is clear how much we could stand to gain from artificially boosting endangered animals in this way – especially for species where the remaining number of animals is so small that breeding is not a viable option to grow the population. Commercially, there has been some success with offering cloning technology to people to use for favorite pets, through companies such as Genetic Savings & Clone (which went out of business), and PerPETuate, which is currently trying to make cloning more efficient.
In “Nine Lives,” we learn about how genetic engineering could be a boon to extinct animals, or those species which are almost extinct. For example, in Russia, there is a project that aims to re-terraform a blighted environment back to its former “wildness” simply by reintroducing animals and plants that had lived there in the past and stepping back to see an ecosystem redevelop. This project relies partially on DNA samples from the "Frozen Ark Project,” an effort by the Zoological Society of London, the Natural History Museum, and the University of Nottingham to preserve for the future the genetic material of species that are going extinct.
The final chapters, “Sentient Sensors,” “Pin the Tail on the Dolphin,” and “Robo Revolution,” discuss ways that we can enhance animals through cybernetic or other technology rather than genetic engineering alone. Scientists have used tracking monitors on mammals, birds, and fish for decades – but with genetic modification, these tracking tools can be improved in dramatic ways. Similarly, the technologies for creating prosthetics for animals – such as the artificial tail for a dolphin named Winter – have become more advanced and complex as researchers have figured out ways to connect them to the animals’ genetic code. In combination, these tools will eventually allow us to use animals for surveillance and emergency needs: incorporating the extraordinary smell abilities of rats to check areas for explosives, for example, or equipping birds or, potentially, even insects with surveillance technology.