(CNN) — A cyborg beetle or a pet fish engineered to glow under ultraviolet light might sound like something you’d see in a movie about the future.
But if that’s the case, then the future is here.
Those are just two of the developments science journalist Emily Anthes explores in her new book, “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.” In easy-to-digest language, Anthes looks at the varied ways scientists are reshaping other living things — and opening up a dialogue on ethics in the process.
Cloning, for example, falls into this discussion, as does “pharming,” or genetically engineering animals for medicinal purposes. Advancements in prosthetics are giving new options to injured animals — and occasionally benefiting humans, too.
Watch an iPod control a cockroach leg
Anthes highlights the example of Atlantic bottlenose dolphin Winter, whose story — she lost her tail after being caught in a crab-trap line and was fitted with a prosthetic one — inspired the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.” In the process of developing Winter’s tail, scientists came up with a prosthetic gel liner that some human amputees now use on their artificial limbs because of its impressive grip.
Biotech’s capabilities extend to pet owners. A dog owner who frets about losing a beloved companion might be intrigued by the possibilities cloning offers, while cat lovers with allergies would probably be interested to hear that genetic engineering could offer a solution.
GloFish, which are zebrafish that have been genetically engineered to contain a fluorescent protein gene, are sold as pets in 49 states. (There’s also a domestic cat in the U.S.,Mr. Green Genes, who glows when placed under ultraviolet light, although Anthes doesn’t foresee there being much of a market for more like him.)
CNN explored these examples and some of the stickier ethical questions posed by engineering animals in an interview this week with Anthes. Some answers were edited for brevity.
CNN: What was the impetus behind “Frankenstein’s Cat”?
Life, but not as we know it: Welcome to a future where man-made organisms build us cities on alien planets
The field of synthetic biology is hugely exciting but it’s provoked fears of bioterrorism and man-made plagues – so do the benefits really outweigh the risks?
Mankind’s first ‘colonists’ on other planets might not be humans at all – but instead, modified microscopic life-forms which would glue together concrete buildings before our first manned ships touched down.
The idea sounds like science fiction – and suspiciously like Star Trek’s ‘terraforming’ – but NASA is already experimenting with ‘synthetic biology’ to achieve it – tailor-making an organism to help us make concrete from sand.
“NASA is investigating a synthetic version of bacteria that secrete calcite. If you put them in sand, they form bricks,” says Andrew Rutherford, an editor at science journal ‘Nature’ and author of new book ‘Creation’.Adam Rutherford
“NASA is investigating a synthetic version of these bacteria – which could form bricks. One of the biggest costs in space exploration is getting materials off Earth. With this, if you take a flask of bacteria, you’ve got all your building material. The research is some way off, but NASA is taking a very serious line in synthetic biology.”
Rutherford’s book looks at the emerging science of ‘synthetic life‘ – lifeforms modified in the lab using genetic engineering, tailor-made to our needs.
The research has provoked fears of bioterrorism, or man-made plagues – but Rutherford insists the benefits far outweigh the risks.
“Genetic modification is an engineering discipline,” says Rutherford. “It has the potential to be the biggest industrial revolution in history – changing food production, the environment, drug production.
“We have been designed in a blind process that has lasted four billion years – with each gene tested to destruction, either through death or extinction. A gene is basically a tool.”