Cloning and Cyborgs and Bionics, Oh My!

Lulu RasorDecember 2, 2016Mysteries of the UniverseMedia
Cloning and Cyborgs and Bionics, Oh My!

What comes to mind when you hear the words “genetically engineered”?

Slavering, lab-made monsters that dine on human flesh? A world as we know it collapsing as bioengineered creatures turn on their creators? Grotesque animal-human hybrids bred for war? Animals from centuries ago brought back to roam the Earth? Something straight out of science fiction, with scientists becoming gods as they tamper with the very DNA of living creatures?

As Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by science journalist Emily Anthes teaches, in reality, biotechnology is much more commonplace than you might think, and far more advanced than many people know. Published in 2013, the book is a good introduction to biotechnology. Each chapter explores an aspect of the field and the controversies that accompany it, culminating in a thoughtful epilogue discussing biotechnology as a whole.

While glowing fish sold in pet stores, cloned animals, goats with modified milk that might save lives, remote-controlled animal cyborgs, or tags that can track animals across oceans might sound like something out of science fiction, they are in fact a reality, and have been for several years. In the United States, the GloFish, zebrafish modified with jellyfish DNA that makes them glow under certain lights, are sold as close as Petco. In Brazil, goats are being altered so their milk produces high amounts of lysozyme, which might save the lives of the millions of children in developing countries who die from treatable diarrhea every year by preventing children from contracting gastrointestinal diseases. Backyard Brains, a business developed by former neuroscientists Tim Marzullo and Greg Gage, sells cheap kits that allow you to essentially hack the nervous system of a cockroach and create a remote-controlled bug.

Throughout Frankenstein’s Cat, Anthes discusses the many ways that biotechnology is taking shape today, whether it be the fairly nonsensical habit of preserving DNA of favorite pets in the chance that a beloved dead animal might be brought back to life in a perfect cloned copy, or useful and pragmatic applications, such as the engineering of prosthetic limbs for animals and humans alike.

Unfortunately, as biotechnology advances, prejudice towards its results grows. Some say that there’s a limit to how much humans should play god, and that engineering living creatures is that limit. While GloFish were able to proceed to stores relatively easily compared to other biotechnology products and can still be found for sale today, the potentially life-saving lysozyme-producing goats are still stuck on their farm as their creators battle for the right to put them into action. While biotechnology and its results are neither inherently good or bad, much of the public and members of the government are scared that tampering with living creatures crosses a line that should never even be approached.

However, as Anthes points out, one could argue that humans have been bioengineering animals for centuries (after all, don’t all dog breeds owe their existence to domestication and selective breeding?) and that biotechnology is simply the next step in a journey that’s been going on for as long as mankind has been around. Of course, dog breeding has had its fair share of negative consequences, with inbreeding causing genetic disorders that can quite hinder a dog’s enjoyment of life or even shorten its lifespan, and there’s a huge difference between the slow domestication of dogs and altering animals so they cannot feel pain. Anthes makes it clear that as biotechnology advances more and more, so do the questions we humans need to ask ourselves about what we’re doing.

Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up To Biotechnology’s Brave New Beasts is an utterly fascinating, relevant read. As the presence of biotechnology begins to grow in our world, we need to start asking questions about when we should stop, about what is too much. Turning rats or insects into remote-controlled cyborgs sounds inhumane at first, but what if they could help us search ruins after earthquakes to find buried survivors? At what point should we stop using animals for our own gain, even if that gain could be used to save lives?

While Frankenstein’s Cat doesn’t provide any of the answers (those need to be decided by us as a species, not by one author), it does give background and context, and, more importantly, starts asking questions that we’ll need to think about in the future. By covering multiple topics, both controversial questions and those that seem easier to answer, it prompts the reader to think: how far should we go in viewing animals as resources? Do we, as humans, have an obligation to try to improve life for all species on Earth? Even if it means sacrificing something that could help us?

When it comes to biotechnology, there are no easy answers or solutions, something that Emily Anthes is well aware of. Her aim is simply to expand our knowledge of the topics we’ll be dealing with soon, whether we want to or not. Perhaps the most important thing any reader will take away from Frankenstein’s Cat is that biotechnology isn’t a matter of “if”; it’s a matter of “when?” and “how much?”

I give Frankenstein’s Cat 4.5 out of 5 stars. I would recommend this book to almost anyone, whether they’re interested in biotechnology or not. It’s a credible, thorough source (as proven by the 47-page bibliography and glowing reviews by other scientists) that presents everything in a clear, often witty tone that doesn’t shy away from the weighty topics being dealt with. Even those (such as me) with no previous knowledge of genetics or biotechnology will find it a good way to start learning about these controversial topics, and for that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Lulu Rasor is a 15-year-old lean, mean book-reading machine from Yarmouth, Maine. When not reading or learning strange facts about history and science, she enjoys swimming, writing, and talking about herself in the third person.