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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Frankenpets, Anyone?

The brave new world of biotech beasts

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Most people have an irrevocable bond with their pets as well as the animal world in general, and it’s that connection that makes Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) of interest outside the scientific community.

Author Emily Anthes takes us on an engaging odyssey in the flourishing field of research into animal biotechnology, covering the gamut of non-human life from amicable house pets to the invisible world of insects and beyond.

This compelling overview details how transgenics, electronics and robotics are playing a growing part in many an animal’s destiny while potentially making the world a better place for all through the advancement in artificial limb technology and disease studies, as well as the inherent commercial value in pharmaceutical and agricultural areas.

But have no fear, for the scientific jargon is put forth in a palatable fashion, giving you some necessary footing in this highly specialized territory without trivializing the subject matter, and ensuring that the ride is as enjoyable as it is informative.

As with most things, especially in the burgeoning domain of a new technology, there will always be pros and cons. We’ve bred horses and dogs for centuries without thinking twice, but when those ambitions transmute to other species, we start to get uneasy—especially when that thinking strays to interspecies breeding. And if the thought of transgenic pets makes you queasy, consider further foreboding possibilities including hybrid human/animal breeding, which was freakishly attempted by a Russian scientist in the 1920s. Yes, he did get in trouble.

This science has its lighter side as well, as with the popularity of “GloFish,” a frivolous, albeit quite successful enterprise, wherein the fish’s colorful luminescence is artificially achieved by some good ol’ DNA injection. There has even been a glowing dog, but that was just too far out.

And, although we’re now used to the idea of cloning cats, cows and horses, some harbor the greater hope that this biotechnology may curb extinction by providing individuals for reintroduction into dwindling environments, thereby possibly stabilizing and revitalizing endangered ecosystems. And of course there are farfetched ideas such as trying to bring the woolly mammoth back to life; it would be an intricate, time-consuming procedure, and as this book makes clear, it won’t be happening any time soon.

Technological evolution rolls on and in the world of animal tracking, bulky radio transmitters collared onto grizzly bears have given way to sophisticated satellite monitoring. And now in our wired age, the general public is able to observe the movement of species online, an inspiring public engagement with the animal kingdom.

Then there is the inevitable realm of military and government use. In one case, in the 1960s, the CIA experimented with a bugging device planted on a cat; think about that feline’s ears pricking up had it been crawling along White House corridors during the Watergate years.

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