Cyborg Roaches, Glow-in-the-Dark Fish, and Other Biotechnology Beasts

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 25 2013 10:34 AM

Cyborg Roaches, Glow-in-the-Dark Fish, and Other Biotechnology Beasts

Cyborg Beetle 4-MM
A remote-controlled flying flower beetle.

Photo courtesy Michel Maharbiz.

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Feb. 28-March 2, Future Tense will be taking part in Emerge, an annual conference on ASU’s Tempe campus about what the future holds for humans. This year’s theme: the future of truth. Visit the Emerge website to learn more and to get your ticket.

I have seen the future of animals and it is glowing. Literally.

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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 totally re-engineer and re-invent 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.

Mr. Green Genes 2-ACRES
Mr. Green Genes under a black light.

Photo courtesy Audubon Nature Institute.

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 coralcode for proteins that give off dazzling, Dayglo 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. Such creatures can help scientists unravel important research questions. By linking a fluorescence gene to a piece of a rat’s native DNA, for instance, biologists can learn precisely when that rat gene turns on—all they have to do is wait for the rat to glow.

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 WalMart—and cost $5 or $6 a piece, which means that nearly anyone who wants to can bring home a high-tech pet. Rather than being used for practical purposes, like evaluating the effectiveness of new genetic engineering techniques, GloFish are merely intended to be fun.  (And they are. I bought a few of my own GloFish a few years ago. They have since gone on to the great aquarium in the sky, but they were delightful while they lasted.)

GloFish 3
GloFish, America’s first transgenic pets.

Photo courtesy Yorktown Technologies

Those 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. Though cloning is still an experimental technique, it’s been embraced by ranchers and farmers eager to make genetic doubles of their best animals. (The animals are likely not in the food supply—the USDA has issued a voluntary moratorium, requesting that those who own cloned livestock keep them away from our dinner tables—and cloned cows are simply too valuable to be slaughtered for meat. So far, the cattle are being mainly used as breeding stock, propagating their superlative genes, and are being entered into prestigious livestock competitions.) Clones could even be coming to the Olympics; last year, the international body that governs equestrian competitions lifted its ban on cloned equines.

Cloning also provides the opportunity to make healthier livestock—researchers at Texas A&M, for instance, cloned a Black Angus bull that had a natural resistance to Brucellosis, an infectious bacterial disease common among cattle. The clone, which students dubbed “Bruce,” is resistant to Brucellosis, too, and could potentially be used to breed a whole new line of disease-free cattle.

Bruce
A cloned Angus bull that’s resistant to Brucellosis, a common cattle disease.

Photo by Emily Anthes

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 benefitted 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-FR copy
A bulldog with an osseointegrated prosthetic leg.

Photo courtesy Fitzpatrick Referrals.

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.

Winter-WH copy
Winter the bottlenose dolphin, wearing her prosthetic tail.

Photo courtesy Hanger Inc.

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.

RoboRoach-EA
A remote-controlled cockroach.

Photo by Emily Anthes.

I got the chance to test-drive one, if you will, two years ago in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, using a tiny remote control to command the bug to spin left or right. The experiment seemed pretty harmless—and it was definitely cool—but the implications of hijacking another creature’s nervous system were certainly creepy. The founders of Backyard Brains hope the RoboRoach inspires a new generation of kids to pursue neuroscience and the scientists creating other remote-controlled animals have all sorts of important civilian and military applications in mind for their cyborgs. These goals may well justify our tinkering, but if this is a road we’re going to go down, we need to start thinking through the ethical ramifications of our actions, and we need to do it soon. After all, as I picked the RoboRoach up off the sidewalk, I realized that the future of animal biotechnology was no longer some distant, abstract notion—it was sitting right in front of me, tickling the palm of my hand.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Emily Anthes is a science writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.