Last year, Swiss investigators published work in Science showing that they could restore voluntary control of locomotion after mice had been paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. This team used chemical infusions and implanted electrodes to restore function. Perhaps such strategies might prove feasible in man.
This research and a vast array of interesting biotechnology are explored in the fascinating and lucid book Frankenstein's Cat. Its author, Emily Anthes, is a science writer with a master's degree from MIT and bachelor's in the history of science and medicine from Yale. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Slate, and the Boston Globe, among others. She has a gift for blending reputable science with humorous anecdotes in a sparkling writing style that makes reading this book a real delight.
She reviews a broad spectrum of new biotechnology being carried out in insects; wild, endangered, and domesticated animals. This science has allowed humans to meddle with life, and this, as she says, requires us to struggle with the limits of the technology as well as the societal tolerance for such experimentation.
The text is peppered with interesting examples of the power and flexibility of the scientific possibilities: We learn of zebra fish implanted with genes from various corals and sea anemone that produce fish that glow green, red, blue, or purple when bathed in blue aquarium light. We hear about a vast array of transgenic animals—cats that glow green, or cats with a missing Fel d 1 gene, which codes for a protein that causes human allergies.
Anthes tells of goats that have a human anti-thrombin gene linked to a promoter controlling milk production. This allows a goat, unharmed, to produce up to a kilogram of human antithrombin in its milk—a process she refers to as “pharming”!
Hers is a world of cloning of farm animals, Bengal cats, Yellow Labs, and family pets. We revisit Dolly and hear of the updated (and better) results. But failure rates, while improved, are still not satisfactory. There are markedly different and unexplained differences between species in the ease of cloning: cats and domesticated farm animals seem to clone relatively easily—dogs do not.
We read about a company with the colorful name of Genetic Savings and Clone, which was founded to capitalize on the potential market for cloned pets. Although it was successful in cloning a calico cat named Rainbow (offspring CC, short for Carbon Copy), business was modest and it closed after six years.
These transgenic experiments span from simple glowing fish (FDA approved) to more complex experiments such as placing genes for human lysozyme into goats to produce milk fortified to combat infantile diarrhea in third world countries. Because the FDA views a transgene as a drug, it has been deliberate and very slow to approve such new biotechnology.
The author does a very balanced job of exploring the opposition to such research by discussing the philosophical and ethical issues raised. She also lays out the comfort levels the public seems to have with this work—for example, a Gallup poll showing that 71 percent of Americans feel that “animals deserve some protection from harm and exploitation.” Indeed, 25 percent said that animals have the same rights as people. However, 64 percent approved of using animals for medical research.
However, society does seem to make value judgments about different animals. Considerable latitude is given to research on mice, rats, insects, and domesticated farm animals, but much less on pets and sub-human primates.
In other chapters, we discover efforts to clone rare or extinct animals to preserve biologic diversity or restore lost ones. Clones of rare fishing cats and African wildcats have been successfully produced and cloned. Embryos of lions and Canadian lynx await implantation in surrogate mothers. “Frozen Zoos” now exist in several locations where 48,000 DNA samples from 5,500 species are kept, offering genetic opportunities for strengthening endangered populations. Indeed, a successful clone of a Spanish mountain goat was created from the last living specimen using skin cells taken after her death.
We are introduced to Winter, the unlucky dolphin who lost its tail in a crab net tangle but was fitted with a prosthetic one by experts in human prosthetics. By perfecting a gel that would hold the prosthetic tail on a slippery dolphin, the researchers were able to develop a better adhesive gel for athletes with prosthetic limbs made slippery with sweating.
The book describes the “robo-revolution,” where micro-technology is used to direct beetles and moths as potential reconnaissance tools. Or the work of SUNY Downstate researchers who have used laptop-controlled rats that could search in earthquakes for victims or to search for bombs or landmines. Thankfully, the light weight of the rats would not be expected to detonate the mines.
All this may sound like a lot of pulp fiction. It is not. Anthes painstakingly documents the research from credible investigators, and the 49 pages of references are laced with articles from Science, Nature, Neuroscience, and Nature Biotechnology, among other prestigious journals. She explores some of the science in detail. For example: in somatic cell transfer, she notes that snippets of mitochondrial DNA from the donor egg remain in the cloned animal. This might be problematic in preserving rare or endangered animal populations. Since the mitochondrial DNA comes only from the mother, it can be prevented if only the male offspring from the clone are used for the first-generation breeding.
While Anthes is very exacting about the science throughout the book, she has a marvelous flare for language—for example, somatic cell transfer in her words is like “removing the custard from the middle of a Boston cream donut and replacing it with jelly.”
The book bubbles with provocative bioscience and fascinating examples of important advances that are presented in a witty and absorbing fashion. You will be introduced to a wide range of emerging technology that has compelling applications to future health care.
Frankenstein's Cat reads easily, presents relevant science in a stimulating style, and moves along seamlessly. It is a gem of a book and makes for a first-class read. Pick it up and enjoy a peak into this brave new world of biotechnology!
2013, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN / FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, HARDCOVER, 256 PAGES, ISBN 0374158592
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