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'Frankenstein's Cat' poses ethical questions about biotechnology

'Frankenstein's Cat' poses moral and ethical questions about the affect of biotechnology on animals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 8:27am
 

Here's a cheery fact: between acts of war and more diabetes, the number of human amputees is expected to grow around 40 percent by 2020.

This I learned from Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes, a book I picked up not long after I walked past a chain pharmacy promising free diabetes tests. Thanks to an injured dolphin, the day nears when you can pick up a fake leg on the way out along with your medication and another bag of cheese puffs.

Anthes, a gifted science writer who lives with her cavapoo dog Milo, meets engineers, biologists, veterinarians, goats, dogs, seals and lots of humans like me who love their animal companions so much they dream of a time when that helpful US Supreme Court will rule in favour of interspecies marriage.

For starters, there's a visit to Shanghai's Fudan University, where 45,000 mice are being bred to reflect the almost inconceivable imaginations of their human overlords.

They will, presumably, extract some knowledge applicable to our own species. Some have grown tusks. Others feel no pain, just like that mutant killing machine in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. Now imagine him with a sharp set of ivories.

At a convention, researchers thrill to bioengineered sick creatures, from pigs with cystic fibrosis to rodent varieties with heart issues and Alzheimer-like symptoms. "You design the experiment, we'll design the mice!" promises a company poster.

As it contemplates the tangled fate of humans and animals, Frankenstein's Cat provokes unease and melancholy. At the frivolous end of the spectrum are the fluorescent GloFish that Anthes purchased despite some aesthetic concerns. "Don't you think that ship has sailed?" her boyfriend asks when she wonders whether coloured pebbles would be too tacky for her new tank.

Another expedition takes her to CC's mansion, CC being short for Cloned Cat, the prize exhibit in the whole replication business devoted to deflecting the infantile rich from pondering the finality of death. The sullen cat's attractive quarters include a library where she can read Anna Karenina and stare out the window at her kingdom.

Things have certainly advanced since Dolly the sheep wobbled into view in 1996. Anthes visits an electrical engineer who has outfitted beetles with tiny radio receivers that could prove useful to the military. (No kidding. Who would be surprised that the US military is deploying global beetle-bot spies right this minute - with Edward Snowden serving as a sanctioned distraction?)

Ultimately, this is a serious book with a light touch. What's the limit?

Moral and ethical issues are constantly popping up as technical challenges are overcome. Even if we can resurrect a dinosaur, should we? Their world is gone. They'd be confined for life and we have a lot of extremely large animals in cages. But of course a Russian has already offered to create a kind of Pleistocene playground.

Some stories are touching, especially the attempt to extract genetic material from Celia, the luckless last Pyrenean goat who was crushed by a tree in a storm.

But the most engaging chapter describes how a dolphin made life easier for human amputees. Caught in a crab trap, Winter survived thanks to round-the-clock nursing, but lost her tail. A designer of prostheses heard her story on National Public Radio and drove to the rescue. Winter got a set of tails as she grew, firmly glued with special gel. This substance is now used for patients, especially athletes missing a limb. It attaches nicely to skin and resists water and sweat.

Anthes is supportive of genetic engineering, but cautiously. So now we are breeding sheep stuffed with shape-shifting human cells that produce medically useful organs.What about the reverse? She wonders.

"What if, instead of making sheep with human cells in their livers, the scientists at the University of Nevada had made sheep, rats or monkeys with a mass of human cells in their brains? Would these animals suddenly have a sense of justice? The ability to count? Would they be self-aware enough to realise they were spending their lives as experimental subjects?"

Such creatures inhabit a no-man's land. As they leave the realm of myth, movies and dreams, they will change our reality. Imagine actually meeting a sphinx, chimera or satyr.

Which brings me to a footnote I found engaging. A Soviet scientist's promising experiments were dashed by the secret police in 1927, just as he was about to breed a captive Russian woman with Tarzan, a 26-year-old orangutan. Such annoying sensitivity from the same folks whose social experiments murdered millions.

Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg's arts and culture section.

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