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Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts

by Emily Anthes

Pub Date: March 12th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0374158590
Publisher: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An elegant tour of the wild and fraught sideshow of animal biotechnology.

Scientists have been monkeying with animal genes for decades. Mice are good examples: We can now manipulate them to spend all their time burying marbles or turning to the left. “We are editing their genetic codes, rebuilding their broken bodies, and supplementing their natural senses,” writes Anthes (Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind, 2008). The author generates a sense of awe when appropriate and, when called for, skepticism and an openness to other qualms, particularly issues of ethics, exploitation and commodification. “[S]tudying these creatures yields valuable insights into human disease. That’s good news for us, but little consolation for a tumor-riddled rodent,” writes the author. “But if there is peril here, there is also great promise.” In a bell-clear voice, the author examines the science behind genes, as well as cloning, cyborg insect armies, rescue rat-bots, “mass production of mutant mice” in China, bomb-sniffing beetle drones, prosthetic tails for dolphins, the possibility of enhancing animal sensory skills, and “ ‘pharming,’ in which simple genetic tweaks turn animals into living pharmaceutical factories.” Anthes lays out the facts, but it is still up to readers to decide which side of the ethical divide they will fall on.

Learned, entertaining and illuminating.