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Mon March 11, 2013
'Frankenstein's Cat': Bioengineering The Animals Of The Future
Originally published on Mon March 11, 2013 1:52 pm
In her new book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, science journalist Emily Anthes talks about how the landscape of bioengineering has expanded since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996. Scientists, she says, are now working to create pigs that can grow organs for human transplant, goats that produce valuable protein-rich milk, and cockroaches that could potentially serve as tiny scouts into danger zones for the military.
One lab in China is even tackling the human genome by way of the mouse genome. There, researchers are randomly disabling mouse genes one at a time, in order to identify the function of each gene. By essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard to see what happens, the researchers have filled 45,000 mouse cages with mutant mice.
"By doing this over and over and over again, they've created hundreds of different kinds of mutant mice," Anthes tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There are mice that are prone to tumors; there are mice that get male pattern baldness; there are mice that have various behavioral abnormalities. One of them buries marbles endlessly. It sort of seems to be an OCD-like condition. There's a strange kind of mouse that only seems to be able to make left turns."
The implications of such bioengineering projects are complicated and still unfolding. On the one hand, research being done with bioengineering could potentially help cure cancer or give blind people the gift of sight. At the same time, it heralds unprecedented new territory with regard to human interference with nature. It also forces some tricky questions about animal welfare.
"It puts animal welfare and human welfare in conflict," says Anthes. "Most thinking, feeling humans, I think, would say that they don't want animals to suffer, but a lot of us — the majority of Americans — surveys show, also accept some sort of animal research and experimentation. ... Most people, for instance, would say that they're willing to see some mice engineered to get cancer if it cures human cancer, but they're less willing to see mice suffer if we're just looking for a cure for baldness. It's really something we have to tackle on a case-by-case basis based on what the potential benefits for humans are versus the cost to the animals themselves."
On unanticipated effects on the health of genetically modified animals
"This work, by definition, is experimental, and no matter how well you think it out, you never know quite what the resulting animal might be like, what its health might be like. There's a pretty good example of that from a few decades ago. It's called the Beltsville Pig, and scientists were trying to create a pig that was leaner and that grew faster and that required less feed. (The idea was to raise these pigs for pork.) So their solution was to put the human growth hormone gene in all these pigs and, in some ways, it worked. The pigs did grow faster. They did require less feed.
"But from an animal welfare perspective, it was disastrous, and I don't think scientists really saw it coming. The pigs had ... basically every medical problem you can have: metabolic disorders, arthritis, eye problems. They were just miserable. And so that's a real concern, but ... not all modifications will be bad for animal welfare. As it happens, these goats [with genetically modified milk] have elevated levels of an antibiotic compound in their milk, and early studies from the scientists that created them indicated that the goats are actually healthier than other goats because their milk essentially protects them from udder infections that can be common in farm animals. So it can really go both ways."
On the prospect of raising animals for their organs
"Scientists used to focus on the potential for transplanting ape organs into humans. The idea was that apes were very similar to us, so that should work, but that idea has sort of become taboo, especially as we learn more about how cognitively sophisticated apes are. So, scientists are now really focused on pigs, largely because their organs are about the same size as human organs and there are already some very successful procedures being done. It's somewhat common now to receive a valve from a pig heart in certain heart operations. But scientists really want to be able to transplant whole organs, not just a heart valve from a pig but, say, a whole pig heart into humans. There's a huge shortage of organ donors worldwide, so scientists just imagine that if you could have these pig farms that are just growing organs constantly, it might save a lot of lives. The problem is ... rejection. It just shows the potential of if we can re-engineer an animal's body, we could potentially engineer it so that it creates these perfect replacement parts for humans."
On whether farming animals for organs would be ethically different from farming animals for food
"Emotionally and instinctively there's something that seems very distasteful about engineering animals only so we can take them apart and make our own lives better, but as soon as I have that thought, I think about the fact that I'm not a vegetarian. So, logically, it seems more defensible to me to have pig farms for organ transplants than it does to have pig farms for pork."
On the problems with cloning pets
"The scientists who did some of the first pet cloning work did not really intend to get into the world of pet cloning — they were studying agricultural cloning. But people approached them about having their pets cloned, and they were a little bit uneasy about this prospect. They're still uneasy about this prospect, and they're still uneasy about it because they worry that our love for our pets can be so strong that essentially pet owners might get duped into thinking that this is a way to actually resurrect a dead pet. And it's still very expensive. It's six figures to get your dog cloned, and so there's some worry about pet owners getting taken advantage of. The scientists who do this work have a mantra that they use and that they repeat again and again to people who are interested in cloning, and that is, 'Cloning is reproduction; it's not resurrection.' "
On genetically engineering insects to act as drones
"There's been a lot of interest [from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] in drones — and especially creating very small drones — that can fly unobtrusively into caves or buildings and sort of scope out the scene, see what's going on. The problem with creating totally robotic drones, especially very small ones, is that they need a source of power. Some engineers have built some very impressive tiny little flying machines, but usually they're so small and light that they can only carry enough battery power to really stay aloft for a few minutes. So researchers have realized that insects are small, they already know how to fly and, best of all, they power themselves, so if we could just take control over insect movements we would already be halfway to these tiny little unmanned vehicles."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you think genetically modified foods have raised a lot of new questions, consider what's in the works with genetically modified animals. Researchers are altering the genetic makeup of some animals to learn more about what each gene is responsible for. Scientists are also implanting genes from one species to another to create, for example, dairy animals whose milk has therapeutic qualities.
There's now a cat that glows in the presence of a black light because of a bit of jellyfish DNA in each of his cells. Scientists are also merging animal bodies and machines. Yes, there are now remote-controlled insects. These are the kinds of new creations that my guest Emily Anthes writes about in her new book "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts."
She also writes about the new ethical questions posed by these creatures. Anthes is a science journalist whose work has been published in Wired, Scientific American, Slate and the Boston Globe. Emily Anthes, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you just run through some of the animals being genetically redesigned now, just some of the things going on in that world?
EMILY ANTHES: Scientists are re-engineering pretty much everything, and that starts from mice and rats in the laboratory. They're often being re-engineered to suffer from various diseases, ranging from cancer to diabetes to Alzheimer's. And scientists are doing this because they want to create lab rats and lab mice that they can use to study human diseases and potentially use to test cures for human diseases. So that's one area of research.
They - there's also an area of research called pharming, spelled with a P-H, like pharmaceutical, and that is a discipline that involves re-engineering dairy animals. So goats or cows are the main animals used. And scientists can actually put genes in these animals that allow them to make human medicine in their milk. So you then milk, say, a genetically modified goat, and you process the milk, and suddenly you get some valuable human protein that can be used to treat all sorts of diseases.
There's also things like gene therapy, which is being done to treat various animal diseases. So scientists have used gene therapy to cure blind dogs and give them the gift of sight. The list really goes on and on.
GROSS: OK, and by the way, we will get to the ethics of all of this a little bit later.
GROSS: So let's go to the mutant mice being bred in China at a university there. And you say there's like 45,000 mouse cages. So from the research you've done, tell us what kind of mutants are being genetically bred in these 45,000 mouse cages.
ANTHES: Right, so the scientists in China are really taking an interesting approach. Traditionally, scientists have engineered animals by focusing on a specific gene first. Say they find a gene that controls cancer, they want to study cancer. They will tinker with it to create an animal that gets cancer. That's a slow and very deliberate process.
The Chinese researchers have decided they want to speed up the creation of mutant mice. So what they're essentially doing is randomly disabling mouse genes one at a time. And they do this using what's called a jumping gene, and essentially they insert it or inject it into a mouse embryo. And it - the jumping gene jumps into a random place in the mouse's genome and disrupts a gene there.
Then only when the mouse grows up and starts exhibiting various deformities do scientists really figure out what kind of gene they've disrupted. And so by doing this over and over and over again, they've created hundreds of different kinds of mutant mice. And there are mice that are prone to tumors. There are mice that get male pattern baldness. There are mice that have various behavioral abnormalities.
One of them buries marbles endlessly, it sort of seems to be an OCD-like condition. There's a strange kind of mouse that only seems to be able to make left turns. And they're getting all these crazy mutants just by essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard and seeing what happens.
GROSS: Can we mention the mouse with the tusk?
ANTHES: Oh, yes, I forgot about that. There's a mouse that has tusks like an elephant might have. They're - sort of anything you can imagine is being created in this laboratory.
GROSS: So what are the Chinese scientists learning from monitoring these mutants?
ANTHES: Well, one of the basic things that scientists are still trying to learn is what every gene in the genome does. There's a huge number of genes in the mouse genome, and if you disrupt one at a time and see what happens to the mouse, it gives you a pretty good idea of what that gene's normal function is.
Ultimately their goal is to create a database and a catalog of all these different kinds of mutant mice. So if a scientist wants to study, say, tusk formation in mice, they can order up this mutant and use it in their lab.
GROSS: And for instance if they wanted to study male pattern baldness, they'd know what the gene was and how you might be able to change that or, you know, ditto for OCD or something like that that's...
ANTHES: Correct, because the way that scientists are making these mice now or have made them in the past is a very slow and deliberate process, and a big part of the challenge is figuring out how to get the mouse that has the characteristics you want. So these researchers are trying to speed that up by - they want to randomly disable every single gene in the mouse genome and create a strain of mice for each one.
GROSS: So what are some of the questions this raises about the ethics of this kind of genetic breeding?
ANTHES: Well, at its heart the questions you raise come down to the issue of how do we balance animal welfare against human welfare, and what do we do when they conflict. There are some examples in the book, which we can talk about, about win-win situations. For instance, we can engineer chickens that are less likely to get the avian flu, and that's good for chickens, and it's also good for humans, but when we talk about engineering lab animals to have devastating diseases, that really puts animal welfare and human welfare in conflict. And that's something that most of us are very uneasy about.
Most thinking, feeling humans, I think, would say that they don't want animals to suffer. But a lot of us, the majority of Americans, surveys show, also accept some sort of animal research and experimentation. And I think it depends on what the purpose is and what the potential benefits could be. Most people, for instance, would say that they're willing to see some mice engineered to get cancer if it cures human cancer, but maybe there's less willingness to see mice suffer if we're just looking for a cure for baldness.
So it's really something I think we have to tackle on a case-by-case basis based on what the potential benefits for humans are versus the cost to the animals themselves.
GROSS: Let's take a look at the first pet that has had its genetics altered to make a more pleasing pet. And I'm thinking of the glowfish.
ANTHES: Of course.
GROSS: So just - you have glowfish. So just describe, for those of us who haven't seen one yet, what a glowfish does that's special.
ANTHES: So, GloFish is the brand name. The fish are actually technically zebrafish, and they're little, small tropical fish, and they're normally covered in just black and white horizontal stripes. They're native to Southeast Asia. Well, scientists have figured out a way to put special genes in the glowfish that code for fluorescent proteins. And so what happens is these fish's bodies churn out these proteins that essentially glow in the dark.
So all of a sudden you've taken fish that are normally just black and white, and you can create fish that are bright red, orange, green, purple. And they give off these bright colors under normal light, but if you put them under a blue or black light, they get especially bright. And so these fish are now widely available, sold for five or six dollars apiece at Petco or Wal-Mart, and they also come with a special GloFish tank that I also purchased, which has these blue and black lights.
And you switch the lights on, and you have these bright, gleaming fish just swimming around in your living room.
GROSS: Now, this is an innovation for these fish. So what was done to these black and white striped zebrafish to make them glow all kinds of colors and glow even more in the dark?
ANTHES: So there are some species, particularly marine organisms, that naturally make these proteins. Jellyfish and sea coral and sea anemones have genes that let them fluoresce in the dark and in certain lighting conditions. So what scientists did was they took this fluorescence gene from a jellyfish, for instance, and they injected it into an embryo of the zebrafish.
And what happens is just randomly this fluorescence gene will integrate itself into the zebrafish genome, and when the zebrafish turns from an embryo into a fish, its body will start making the same bright proteins that jellyfish normally make. So you're taking a gene from one species and putting it into another species, and that's called transgenesis, and the result in this case is that these fish glow just like jellyfish might glow in the ocean.
GROSS: Are there other pets that are being redesigned this way?
ANTHES: Not this way yet, no. There's a lot of interest in this area. One of the areas of research that people have talked a lot about, for instance, is creating a cat that doesn't trigger allergies, maybe disabling a certain gene in cats so that they don't produce the protein that some humans are allergic to. And there are a lot of possibilities in that area. Nothing else is really close to being on the market yet, but I think it's only a matter of time.
GROSS: And legally, can you just do this? Can you just take, like, the genes of one fish and put them in another fish and market it?
ANTHES: Well, that's a little bit unclear, to be honest. The FDA and the U.S. government has thought a fair amount about what to do about, say, genetically modified food. That's something they've considered a lot. But when the company that makes these fish, it's called Yorktown Technologies, when they set out to market these, there was no precedent for pets, and they weren't really sure what the FDA would do about pets.
They ended up approaching the FDA on their own and outlining the plans and telling them about the fish, and the FDA basically issued a statement that said because these fish aren't intended for human consumption, we see no problem with them, and they can go ahead and be introduced to the market. But it wasn't a formal review process, and so I imagine the next person that comes up with a pet like this might have to do the same thing, sort of approach the FDA on its own and ask for an individual ruling.
GROSS: My guest is Emily Anthes, author of the new book "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Emily, earlier you mentioned that goats are being genetically modified in such a way so that their milk might be modified to have medicinal qualities. So let's take a look at how that's being done. What are the qualities that scientists are trying to create in the milk?
ANTHES: Well, this is part of a larger effort called pharming, and what...
GROSS: With a P-H, as in pharmacy.
ANTHES: With a P-H, as in pharmaceuticals, and what scientists are trying to do is it turns out that all sorts of human proteins that our bodies make naturally are really good therapeutically. They can be used to treat all sorts of diseases. But the problem is that these proteins are really hard to manufacture on an industrial scale. They're very finicky, and it's expensive to produce large quantities of them.
As a result, there's often shortages of these medicines, and patients sometimes have trouble getting the prescriptions they need. But in the '80s, scientists realized that dairy animals are actually very, very good at making protein. The milk that fills their udders is chock-full of these proteins.
So they got the idea that maybe they could turn these animals essentially into drug factories. And so what they're doing is putting a gene for a certain protein that they want to use as medicine into dairy animals and hoping that the animals produce this protein in their milk.
So just to give you an example, there are scientists out at the University of California Davis, and they're working with genetically modified goats. They have decided to tackle the problem of childhood diarrhea, which sounds like a humble, maybe not very serious problem to us here in the U.S., but worldwide causes a lot of child and infant mortality.
And as it happens, human breast milk is pretty protective against E. coli and other sorts of diseases that cause childhood diarrhea. And there's a particular protein that's very concentrated in human breast milk, it's called lysozyme, and it bursts bacteria like balloons, essentially, and kills all those nasty bacteria that might make kids sick.
The problem is that lysozyme is not very concentrated in animal milk, and so what scientists have done is they've taken the human gene for lysozyme and put it into goats. And so all of these goats now have a single human gene in each of their cells, and when the females make their milk to feed their young, their bodies read this human lysozyme gene, and they start churning out large quantities of lysozyme.
So as a result, the milk that they produce has high concentrations of this, essentially, antibiotic, and the scientists have shown - they've tested the milk in pigs and shown that it indeed protects pigs from bacterial infections, and the next step is of course to move to human trials. And the hope is that you might be able to give this kind of goat milk to all sorts of children in developing countries, and it would be a natural, easy way to boost their immune systems and maybe stave off the kind of disease that can kill a lot of children.
GROSS: So on the one hand we have this research being done that can save, like, thousands of lives of children and babies. And at the same time we're entering, like, brand new territory here. We have this goat that's part human, very tiny, teeny part human, but you know, like one gene, but still, it's really new territory.
ANTHES: Right, and it's not at all clear whether the public will accept it or not. That's something the scientists are very worried about. They're pretty sure that the milk will be safe because lysozyme is a natural compound, and of course before it's, you know, ever prescribed to a child, there will be extensive safety studies, but just because it's safe and effective does not necessarily mean the public will accept it.
GROSS: Is there any regulation of it here in the United States where the research is being done?
ANTHES: Yes, there's pretty extensive regulation over those sorts of applications, and these scientists at U.C. Davis who are doing this work have, you know, sent a preliminary application to the FDA. The first step is they want to get the FDA to rule that this milk is safe. But the FDA's been moving pretty slowly on these sorts of applications, and so some researchers, including these scientists, are beginning to take their work abroad.
They're actually moving their herd of goats to Brazil. The Brazilian government has been much more gung-ho about this sort of work. And there are some other nations - Argentina, India, China, that have been very supportive of this type of biotechnology work.
The climate in the U.S. is a little more uncertain, and the regulation, the regulatory process has been taking a long time.
GROSS: Are there other concerns about the future, like looking down the road, and no one knows yet, like, what would the health be of these goats in the long run? What unforeseen changes might this kind of genetic modification cause? What do scientists have to say about that?
ANTHES: That's a huge issue, this idea of unintended consequences, because this work by definition is experimental, and no matter how well you think it out, you never know quite what the resulting animal might be like, what its health might be like. And there's a pretty good example of that from a few decades ago. It's called the Beltsville pig.
And scientists were trying to create a pig that was leaner and that grew faster and that required less feed. The idea was to raise these pigs for pork. And so their solution was to put the human growth hormone gene in all these pigs. And in some ways it worked. The pigs did grow faster, they did require less feed, but from an animal welfare perspective, it was disastrous. And I don't think scientists really saw it coming. But the pigs had all sorts of - basically every medical problem you can have: metabolic disorders, arthritis, eye problems. They were just miserable.
And so that's a real concern. But the other point I'm trying to make is that not all modifications will be bad for animal welfare. As it happens, these goats have elevated levels of an antibacterial compound in their milk, and early studies from the scientists who created them indicated that the goats are actually healthier than other goats because their milk essentially protects them from udder infections that can be common in farm animals. So it can really go both ways.
GROSS: One of the things in the works now is to help breed pigs so that their organs could be transplanted in human bodies without the human immune system rejecting the organ. And that's one of the biggest problems of transplants, is that the immune system knows that something foreign has entered the body and it does its best to fight it off because that's what the immune system does. So can you describe a little bit what's being done with pigs so that - and what organs are being used from pigs?
ANTHES: Right. Well, scientists used to focus on the potential for transplanting ape organs into humans. The idea was that apes were very similar to us so that should work. But that idea has sort of become taboo, especially as we learn more about how cognitively sophisticated apes are. So scientists are now really focused on pigs, largely because their organs are about the same size as human organs and there are already some very successful procedures being done. It's somewhat common now to receive a valve from a pig heart in certain heart operations. But scientists really want to be able to transplant whole organs, not just a heart valve from a pig, but say a whole pig heart into humans. There's a huge shortage of organ donors worldwide, and so scientists just imagine that if you could have these pig farms that are just growing organs constantly, it might save a lot of lives.
The problem, as you point out, is rejection. And in the case of pig organs, the organs themselves are covered with these special sugars and the sugars are only present on pig organs; our own bodies don't have them. So as soon as you put the organ in the human body, our immune system immediately sees these foreign sugars and says no, that doesn't belong to us, we're going to attack it. And they attack the organ and the patient's body rejects it. So the idea is to engineer pigs who don't have these sugars on the surface of their organs. And scientists have been able to do that so far. They basically disabled the gene that codes for these special sugars and the pigs grow up and they seem to be healthy, but these little clues that tip off our immune system that the organ comes from a pig are suddenly gone. So that's just a first step. Scientists haven't started putting these organs into humans yet, and there are other reasons our bodies might reject them, so there might be more that has to be done, but it just shows the potential of if we can re-engineer an animal's body we could potentially engineer it so it creates these perfect replacement parts for humans.
GROSS: And say we were able to do that. Say we are able to create big pig farms that were being bred solely so that we can harvest their hearts to transplant into humans who needed hearts. Ethically, would that be any different than a pig farm for pork or a cow farm for meat or beef or, you know, a chicken farm for eggs and chicken? We're entering such new territory.
ANTHES: Right. And that's, it's a hard question and it's one that I struggled with myself. Just emotionally and instinctively there is something that seems very distasteful about engineering animals only so we can take them apart and make our own lives better. But as soon as I have that thought, I think about the fact that I'm not a vegetarian. And so logically it seems more defensible to me to have pig farms for organ transplants than it does to have pig farms for pork. But I understand that emotionally it's very difficult and it's something that I think a lot of people have trouble with. At the same time, you know, if you're the one that needs a new heart or one of your loved ones needs a new heart and there's suddenly one available from a pig, I think it's very hard to turn that down.
GROSS: One of your chapters is about the cloning of animals. How far have we gotten with that?
ANTHES: That was something that surprised me a little because Dolly, the cloned sheep, was born in 1996 and that was such huge news. And occasionally you still see headlines about scientists cloning this animal or that animal and it makes news. So going into the book, I thought that it must be so rare that it makes news when it happens. But there are actually several hundred cloned animals born in the U.S. every year. The technology is still certainly experimental and there's still a lot of problems with cloning - for one thing, it's very inefficient so it might take hundreds of eggs and you might have to make dozens of cloned embryos and only one of those will survive long enough to actually be born as a living clone. But it's a technology that's actually in use already. There are some people who are having their pets cloned. That's still a very small market, but cloning is picking up speed in the livestock industry for sure. Most of those hundreds of cloned animals that are born in the U.S. every year are cows, and ranchers and farmers are - essentially see cloning as a great opportunity to make exact genetic replicas of their best performers, of the cows that make the most milk or have the best kind of beef, and to them the prospect of cloning is a lucrative one because they can make a lot of money by duplicating their best animals.
GROSS: And just so we're all - we all know what we're talking about, let's back up and describe what you mean when you say a cloned animal.
ANTHES: Mm-hmm. So obviously, you know, normal reproduction we're all familiar with. A sperm meets an egg and half of the genes of the resulting animal come from the male parent and half of the genes come from the female parent. Cloning is a different method of reproduction in which all of the genes come from one, quote-unquote, parent. So you're essentially taking the DNA - like my entire genome - and sticking it into an embryo or a fetus. And so the baby that would be born would have the exact same genes as its genetic donor. Essentially what a clone is is an identical twin. But it's an identical twin that is maybe born years after its twin.
GROSS: And some people want to have their pets cloned. And I guess a few people have had their pets cloned, right?
ANTHES: Yes. That's correct.
GROSS: In a way, I really don't get that because it seems to me part of what your pet is is the personality and what the pet has learned to do and the relationship you've developed with the animal. And even if the pet comes out looking identical to your pet, it doesn't have the same memory or experience or relationship to you. It is therefore automatically and profoundly different.
ANTHES: Yeah. That's right. And actually, the scientists who did some of the first pet cloning work did not really intend to get into the world of pet cloning. They were studying agricultural cloning. But people approached them about having their pets cloned, and they were a little bit uneasy about this prospect and they're still uneasy about it because they worry that our love for our pets can be so strong that essentially pet owners might get duped into thinking that this is a way to actually resurrect a dead pet. And it's still very expensive. It's six figures to get your dog cloned, and so there's some worry about pet owners being taken advantage of. The scientists that do some of this work have a mantra that they use and that they repeat again and again to people who are interested in cloning, and that is cloning is reproduction, it's not resurrection. And that's really important to keep in mind.
GROSS: One of the things that I found both fascinating and kind of creepy and potentially frightening is that insects are being genetically modified. And it's almost like scientists are trying to create, turn insects into drones. Some drones are or will soon be insect-size, but it sounds like some insects will still - will soon have the surveillance capabilities of drones, and that's just too - like insects are creepy enough when left alone. And...
GROSS: Put surveillance technology in them and I'm out of here.
ANTHES: And actually one of the engineers that's doing this work talked about this to me and he said insects already have this sort of sci-fi quality. They have these strange foreign bodies, and then you add flying and surveillance and the military to that equation, and suddenly you have this recipe for dystopian fantasizing.
GROSS: Absolutely. So tell us what's being done. Give us one example.
ANTHES: So DARPA is really interested in creating these flying insect cyborgs.
GROSS: And DARPA is the research arm of the Defense Department.
ANTHES: Yes. Exactly. And so as some listeners may know, there's been a lot of interest in drones - and especially creating very small drones that can fly unobtrusively into caves or buildings and sort of scope out the scene, see what's going on. The problem with creating totally robotic drones, especially very small ones, is that they need a source of power. And some engineers have built some very impressive tiny little flying machines, but usually they're so small and light that they can only carry enough battery power to really stay aloft for a few minutes. And so researchers realized that insects are small, they already know how to fly, and best of all they power themselves, so if we could just take control over insect movements, we would already be halfway to these tiny little unmanned vehicles.
So scientists have taken a few different approaches to this. One researcher at UC-Berkeley is working with beetles and he has created what is essentially a cyborg remote-control beetle. He has a few wires that go into the beetle's brain and a few others that go into their wing muscles, and the wires snake out of these holes and all plug into a little circuit board that is mounted on the beetle's back, and this circuit board has a receiver and can receive signals wirelessly from the scientist's laptop. So essentially what they can do is they can sit in a room with their laptop and press a key and send a command to the beetle and suddenly the beetle will take off, and as it flies around the room they can overlay directional commands. They can send a message to the right or left wing that makes the beetle turn right or left. And when they're done they can send another signal to the beetle that makes it stop flying and land on the ground. So they've really taken control of the beetle's movements and its nervous system.
GROSS: You played with a roach that was designed to be robotically - or robotically controlled by remote control. I'm not even sure what the language is to use for this stuff. It's...
GROSS: It's just too, too beyond my comprehension.
ANTHES: Remote-controlled roach or a cyborg roach, all of those are fine.
GROSS: Yes, you're sending chills down my spine.
GROSS: Any roach is bad enough.
ANTHES: So you'll not be a customer.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. I just, like - remote control them to like, leave the house now.
ANTHES: Yes. That would be useful.
GROSS: That would be useful. So what was it like playing with a remote-controlled roach?
ANTHES: It was a little bit surreal. I had read about this research, obviously, but it's one thing to read about it and another to stand there with a remote control in your hand and send a command to another living creature and watch it obey. I mean, our directional control right now is still pretty crude. You know, with the roaches all we can sort of do is make them turn right and left and otherwise, sort of, the roaches do their own thing. But it was still very impressive to see how quickly I could send a signal from the remote and watch the roach just follow it.
GROSS: Did it kind of scurry in a way that roaches do, like really fast and...
ANTHES: Yes, it definitely scurries. And because you don't have much control over its movements, I put it down on the sidewalk and it just started doing its roach thing, scurrying away. And then I pressed, I think the left button on the remote control, and suddenly it spun left. But then it kept scurrying away. You're not - it's still a roach and has very roach-like behavior.
GROSS: How do you make sure you can wrangle the roach and not let it escape into the larger world?
ANTHES: Running after it was the very technical solution.
GROSS: Oh, god. You're kidding me. Really?
GROSS: But roaches are so good at getting into the baseboards and just, like, crawling into holes you didn't know existed.
ANTHES: Right. Well, we didn't do this - we did this outside on the sidewalk, and there were several of us, so I think we had it pretty well circled. I don't know that I would want to do it in my apartment, out of fear that it would hide there somewhere.
GROSS: So what are the possibilities of actually putting surveillance technology within an insect?
ANTHES: Right. So, so far mostly what scientists have done is create these insects that we can steer. The next step would be to put various sensors on top of the insects and by all accounts, that should be less challenging than the part that scientists have already done. Obviously, the equipment can't be very big or very heavy because the insects are not very big. But there are a lot of possibilities.
One of the interesting applications might be, for instance, to put a little chemical sensor on this remote control beetle. And you might be able to then steer the beetle into a cave or a building and the chemical sensor can tell you if anything inside the room it's in, for instance, is an explosive, and send that information back to the military or maybe soldiers who are thinking about entering that building. So you could get very useful information about the environment we're about to send our soldiers into.
GROSS: So, Emily, you've called your book "Frankenstein's Cat." Things didn't work out so well for Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
ANTHES: That's true.
GROSS: Are you implying that you don't think things are going to work out so well for this kind of experimentation, this kind of genetic experimentation that you're writing about?
ANTHES: No. We had a lot of discussions about the title and one of those discussions was whether it gave the wrong impression. You'll also notice the subtitle includes the words "Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts." So I wanted to do a couple of things. I certainly take these new powers seriously and there's a lot of harm, absolutely, that we can do with genetic engineering and cyborg technology.
But so often, only the risks are emphasized and all that we see being discussed in the public sphere is how these things can go wrong. And so I wanted to try and balance the narrative a little bit by providing some examples of how things might go right. And I think regulation is important. I think proceeding carefully and cautiously is important.
But what I really don't want to see happen is for general fear of biotechnology to prompt this knee-jerk reaction against all engineering or all cybernetics. Because I think there are a lot of really good things that these technologies can do for animals and for humans. And if we have this knee-jerk reaction against the technology, then we lose the good as well as the bad.
GROSS: Well, Emily Anthes, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
ANTHES: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Emily Anthes is the author of "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by twin sisters Tegan and Sara, an indie duo heading in a more pop direction. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.