NEW YORK – I have seen the future of animals, and it is glowing. Literally.
Three years ago, I set out to explore the world of animal biotechnology, to see just how scientists were using advances in genetics, electronics and materials science to re-engineer and reinvent animal bodies.
I discovered that researchers were genetically engineering cats – and monkeys and mice – that glowed electric green under a black light. They were cloning pets, livestock and endangered species. And they were using neural implants to create remote-controlled, cyborg critters.
That wasn’t entirely shocking; biotechnology moves fast, and scientists are capable of dreaming up, and then achieving, remarkable things. What did take me by surprise, however, was how many of these sci-fi, futuristic critters have already made their way out of the laboratory and into our farms, fields and families.
For instance, as I describe in my new book Frankenstein’s Cat, biologists have spent a lot of time playing around with fluorescence genes. These genes, which are naturally present in a variety of marine organisms – including certain species of jellyfish, sea anemones and coral – code for proteins that give off dazzling colors in certain lighting conditions. For years, scientists have been experimenting with transferring these fluorescence genes into all sorts of critters, creating neon cats, dogs, pigs and more.
Now, even us non-scientists can own one of these strange creatures. In 2004, a company called Yorktown Technologies began selling GloFish in pet stores across the country. The fish are zebrafish – tropical freshwater swimmers that are normally simply black and white – that carry fluorescence genes from sea coral and sea anemones.
As a result, the fish come in a radiant rainbow of colors, glowing red, orange, green, blue or purple under an ultraviolet light. The fish are widely available – they’re sold at Petco, as you might expect, but also at Wal-Mart – and cost $5 or $6 a piece, which means that nearly anyone who wants to can bring home a high-tech pet.
People with more money to burn – say, $100,000 – can acquire a clone of a beloved animal. A handful of these DNA doubles already live among us, including Little Nicky, a clone of a Maine Coon cat named Nicky, and Lancelot Encore, a duplicate of a yellow Lab named (what else?) Lancelot. And every year, hundreds of cloned farm animals – mostly cows – are born in the United States, to relatively little fanfare.
Clones could even be coming to the Olympics; last year, the international body that governs equestrian competitions lifted its ban on cloned equines.
Thanks to the work of a few pioneering veterinarians, when our pets’ bodies begin to fail, we can give them bionic upgrades. Consider Coal, an American bulldog who developed a tumor in his front paw. Many dogs with similar afflictions simply have their legs amputated and learn to adjust to life as three-limbed canines. But Coal was arthritic and really benefited from the support of a fourth leg, so a British veterinarian named Noel Fitzpatrick built him a bionic one.
Fitzpatrick gave Coal an osseointegrated prosthesis, permanently implanting one end of a titanium rod inside what remained of Coal’s leg bone. The other end of the rod protruded from the dog’s stump and could be affixed to a removable artificial paw.
Coal did well on his new leg, and he wasn’t alone. Fitzpatrick has given some two dozen animals the same kind of osseointegrated prosthesis, and an American vet has built similar devices for two cats and six dogs. Prosthetists have also built an artificial tail for a dolphin, a beak for a bald eagle and legs for sandhill cranes.
Even the most sci-fi of techniques are trickling out to the public. Advances in electronics have given us the ability to hijack animal bodies and brains, taking control of another creature’s movements and behaviors. Predictably, much of this work has been done in official, university labs: Engineers and neuroscientists at the University of California-Berkeley, Cornell and the State University of New York Downstate have created remote-controlled, cyborg beetles, moths and rats, respectively.
But these sophisticated tools of mind control are also now available to the general public. A company called Backyard Brains sells a RoboRoach kit for $100; anyone who buys the kit online can make their very own steerable, cyborg cockroaches.