Daily Archives: August 5, 2011

Glow F**k Yourself

Photo via http://kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com/kidsnews/2009/05/glowing-animals-gallery.htmlI believe that, at this time, we have mastered the technology of making glow-in-the-dark animals.  First there were the glowing mice, then the rats, the commercially-available atrocity the “glo-fish“,  Alba, the glowing rabbit who was also an “art installation”, pigs, and a whole host of other critters, and now, apparently, we have the glow-in-the-dark beagle.

What our intrepid scientists are doing, really, is stuffing extra genes into an animal to see if they can.  (Yes, that’s apparently all the justification they need.  They probably put the word “cancer” in the grant application, though.  You never know, this might be it!)  When scientists want to swap a gene from one organism to another, they choose to transfer a gene which makes the target animal, which ordinarily does not glow, produce a glowing protein.  They do this because that kind of thing is really easy to spot and doesn’t require complicated blood testing to see if it’s taken hold.  If the resultant animal glows, voila! — you have successfully transplanted a gene.

Why do they feel that making more glowing animals is necessary at this time?  I think we’ve passed the point of “required replication” of that original first experiment and entered the world of “unnecessary duplication of results”.  We’ve been shuffling genes around for years, as evidenced by that impressive list above.  We’ve even done beagles before, in 2009.  I think we’ve certainly seen that “we can” make glowing animals.  Now that “we can”, what are we doing with this amazing new technology?

To quote from the beagle article:

“[ByeongChun] Lee said the genes injected to make the dog glow could be substituted with genes that trigger fatal diseases. He and his team would then be able to chart the course of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more, better understanding how such diseases develop.”

It is fascinating how that paragraph doesn’t say, “The creation of transgenic beagles will allow us to give laboratory dogs a whole host of genetic diseases they don’t normally get, so that we can study how those diseases affect dogs, as if that were somehow relevant to how they affect people!

Yes.  The whole point of this ludicrous enterprise is that eventually, we will have man-made “animal models” for diseases that animals don’t normally even get — as though studying how these transplanted diseases behave in their new, unnatural hosts will tell us a damn thing about how they behave in humans.  We have reams and reams of evidence — including some generated from actual scientists doing animal-related experiments — that animal and human systems are not identical, and therefore we cannot extrapolate directly from one to the other, and here these people are, wasting time, money, and animals on making more animals to chew through while flailing helplessly in circles blathering about how they can cure cancer if only they can grind up a few more mice.

Ever notice how none of the articles point that out?  None of them say, “This will allow us to kill hundreds, maybe thousands, more dogs every year while searching for cures for human diseases.”  It’s always “Ooh, look at this adorable puppy — which may be a cure for cancer!

Am I saying that we should never, ever investigate recombinant DNA?  No.  Am I saying that perhaps we should think about using our newfound power of shuffling genes about to create hardier or more fruitful food crops that could feed impoverished nations, rather than new “animal models”, “designer fish” and “art installations”?  Yes.  We do not need to learn to cure artificially-induced Alzheimer’s disease in dogs.  We need to learn to cure it as it occurs naturally in people.

“We have learned well how to treat cancer in mice and rats but we still can’t cure people.”

— Professor Colin Garner, quoted in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

I love science.  I love learning new things, and exploring new ideas.  I understand that we can learn things from animal research we cannot learn anywhere else.  This?  This is a grotesque parody of research.  This is an absolute waste of funds.  There are human-based studies at my local VA hospital desperate for funding to help wounded veterans overcome combat injuries.  There are developers who could really use grants to help design new prosthetic limbs.  Why are we wasting money on this?

But ooooh, lookit the cute glowing beagle!

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The Monkeysphere

The online magazine Cracked, which is primarily known for cramming the maximum amount of four-letter words into the minimum amount of space but still occasionally tosses out some utter brilliance, in 2007 put out an article called “What is the Monkeysphere?”  The article presented the concept of Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of social relationships any given animal (including humans) can form and maintain at any given time.

The theory goes: Think about having a pet.  A dog, for example.  Your dog has a name (“Gozer the Magnificent”) and wears a funny hat and likes eating frozen rhubarb.  Now imagine you have five dogs.  Their names and personalities are a little harder to remember, but you can still keep them straight.  Now try to picture owning a hundred dogs.  Likely, you can’t even picture that many dogs, much less think of individual names or personalities for each.  The maximum number of dogs (or people, etc) with whom you can form caring social relationships is somewhere between five and one hundred.  That’s Dunbar’s number.  That’s the biggest social sphere we, as “monkeys”, can create.  That’s our monkeysphere.

Dunbar’s number varies from person to person and from species to species, but the basic principle is the same.  Where animal research, farming, zoos, and the pet industry — animal industry in general — goes wrong is about the point where the number of animals being cared for by any one person becomes greater than Dunbar’s number.

If a lab tech is told to care for ten mice, they all get names, personalities and individual identities.  A lab tech caring for a room full of 500 mouse cages, each containing between one and five mice, barely has time to count the mice as they blur past during each daily check.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” four cows an hour can move slowly and patiently, properly aim the “stunning” device, and make sure each animal is dead before the rendering process begins.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” one hundred cows an hour — as many currently are — is “processing” something like one cow every thirty seconds.  There is no time for patience or proper aim.  A zoo or wildlife park worker who cares for ten to fifteen animals has names for each one, and the animals are often treated as personal friends.  A zoo director, overseeing a collection of five hundred to two thousand animals, starts to see them as “units” rather than social companions.

Other factors — primarily money — come into it as well, but there is something about reaching Dunbar’s number that really damages the structure.  Once the humans can’t form social relationships with the individual animals anymore, they stop treating the animals as beings with which you might form social relationships — and that starts the whole downward spiral, where “what we should be doing” begins to look more and more different from “what we are actually doing”.

Just a thought.