Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
15 November 2000 Issue


By Steve BestBest Steve, [email protected]

Anyone who thinks that things will move slowly is being very naive.
Lee Silver, Molecular Biologist

A bizarre and perverse paradox is currently unfolding in the surreality of the 21st century. As science and technology develop by leaps and bounds, as genetics rapidly advances, and as a proliferation of alternatives to animal experimentation emerges, the science-industry complex is turning a corner where it may exploit more animals than ever before.

This principally is because genetic engineering and cloning are being intensively developed for commercial purposes as all natural reality -- from microorganisms and plants to animals and human beings -- is subject to genetic reconstruction in a fully "Second Genesis."

In a potent combination, genetic engineering and cloning technologies are used together in order, first, to custom design a transgenic animal to suit the needs of science and industry (the distinction is irrevocably blurred) and, second, to mass reproduce the hybrid creation endlessly.

Cloning is a return to asexual reproduction and bypasses the caprice of the genetic lottery and random shuffling of genes. It dispenses with the need to inject a gene into thousands of newly fertilized eggs to get a successful result; rather, much as the printing press replaced the scribe, cloning allows mass reproduction of a devised type and thus opens genetic engineering to vast commercial possibilities. Animals are far more efficient replication media than petri dishes, and life science companies are poised to make billions of dollars in profits.

To date, science has engineered thousands of varieties of transgenic animals and has cloned sheep, calves, goats, bulls, pigs, and mice. Though still far from precise, cloning nevertheless has become routine. What's radically new and startling is not cloning itself, as since 1952 scientists have replicated organisms from embryonic cells, but rather the new techniques of cloning from adult mammal cells. These methods accomplish what scientists long considered impossible -- reverting adult (specialized) cells to their original (non-specialized) embryonic state where they can be reprogrammed to form a new organism -- the identical twin of the adult that provided the original donor cell.

But when Ian Wilmut and his associates from the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland, announced their earth-shattering discovery in March 1997, the "impossible" appeared in the form of a sheep named Dolly. Dolly's donor cells came from a six-year-old Finn Dorset Ewe. Wilmut starved mammary cells in a low-nutrient tissue culture where they became quiescent and subject to reprogramming. He then removed the nucleus containing genetic material from an unfertilized egg cell of a second sheep, a Scottish Blackface, and, in a nice Frankenstein touch, fused the two cells with a spark of electricity. The resulting embryo was then implanted into a third sheep, a surrogate mother who gave birth to Dolly in July 1996.

Many critics said Dolly was either not a real clone or just a fluke. But less than two years later, scientists had cloned cattle, bulls, and mice, and had even made clones of clones of clones, producing genetic simulacra in mass batches as Huxley envisioned happening to human beings in Brave New World. The commercial possibilities of cloning animals was dramatic and obvious for all to behold. The race was on to patent novel cloning technologies and the transgenic offspring they would engender.

Factory Pharming

The idea is to arrive at the ideal animal and repeatedly copy it exactly as it is.
Dr. Mark Hardy

With the birth of Dolly, a new wave of animal exploitation had arrived, and anxiety grew about a world of cloned humans that scientists said was technically feasible and perhaps inevitable. Wilmut himself, however, is not an advocate of human cloning, and designed his revolutionary technology with one idea in mind: manufacturing herds of animals for human use. In Wilmut's words, "The biotechnology industry exists to use genetic information to cure disease and improve agriculture."

The possibilities for genetic engineering and cloning animals are now endless. Animals are being designed and bred as living drug and organ factories, as their bodies are refashioned, disrupted, and mutilated to benefit meat and dairy industries. Genetic engineering also is employed by biomedical research in novel ways by infecting animals with diseases that become a part of their genetic make-up, as in the case of researchers trying to replicate the effects of cystic fibrosis in sheep. Most infamously, Harvard University, with funding from Du Pont, has patented a mouse -- OncoMouse -- that has human cancer genes built into its genetic makeup and are expressed in its offspring.

In the booming industry of "pharming" (pharmaceutical farming), animals are genetically modified to secrete therapeutic proteins and medicines in their milk. The first major breakthrough came in January 1998, when Genzyme Transgenics created transgenic cattle named George and Charlie. The result of splicing human genes and bovine cells, they were cloned to make milk that contains human proteins such as the blood-clotting factor needed by hemophiliacs. Co-creator James Robl said, "I look at this as being a major step toward the commercialization of this [cloning] technology."

Strolling through the Brave New Barnyard, one can find incredible beings that appear normal but are genetic satyrs and chimera. Here cows produce lactoferrin, a human protein useful for treating infections. Goats manufacture antithrombin III, a human protein that can prevent blood clotting, and serum albumin, which regulates the transfer of fluids in the body. Sheep produce alpha antitrypsin, a drug used to treat cystic fibrosis. Pigs secrete phytase, a bacterial protein that enables them to produce less of the pollutant phosphorous in their manure, and chickens are bred to make lysozyme, an antibiotic, in their eggs to keep their own infections down.

As an example of the bizarre wonders of genetic technology, and of the erasure of boundaries between organic and inorganic matter and different species, scientists have implanted a spider gene into goats, so that their milk produces a super-strong material -- BioSteel -- which can be used for bulletproof vests, medical supplies, and aerospace and engineering projects. In order to produce vast quantities of BioSteel, Nexia Biotechnologies intend to house thousands of goats in 15 weapons-storage buildings, confining them in small holding pens.

Organs R Us

A cow is nothing but cells on the hoof.
Dr. Thomas Wagner

Animals are genetically engineered and cloned for yet another reason, to produce a stock of organs for human transplant. Given the severe shortage of human organs, thousands of patients every year languish and die before they can receive a kidney, liver, or heart. Rather than encouraging preventative medicine and finding ways to encourage more organ donations, medical science has turned to xenotransplantation, and has begun breeding herds of animals (with pigs as a favored medium) to be used as organ sources for human transplantation.

Clearly, this is a very hazardous enterprise due to the possibility of animal viruses causing new plagues and diseases in the human population (a danger which exists also in pharmaceutical milk). For many scientists, however, the main concern is that the human body rejects animal organs as foreign and destroys them within minutes. Scientists seek to overcome this problem by genetically modifying the donor organ so that they knock out markers in pig cells and add genes that make their protein surfaces identical to those in humans. Scientists envision cloning entire herds of altered pigs and other transgenic animals so that an inexhaustible warehouse of organs and tissues would be available for human use.

Whereas genetic and cloning technologies in the cases described at least have the potential to benefit human beings, they have also been appropriated by the meat and dairy industries for blatantly self-serving and unethical purposes. It's the H.G. Wells scenario where, in his prophetic novel Food of the Gods, scientists invent a novel "Boomer" food which prompts every living being that consumes it to grow to gargantuan proportions. Today, cattle and dairy industries are engineering and cloning designer animals that are larger, leaner, faster-growing value producers. Since 1997, at least one country, Japan, has sold cloned beef to its citizens.

With synthetic chemicals and DNA alteration, pharmers can produce pigs that mature twice as fast and provide twice the normal amount of sows per litter as they eat 25% less feed, and cows that produce many times more milk. While anomalies such as self-shearing sheep and broiler chickens with fewer feathers have already been assembled, some macabre visionaries foresee engineering pigs and chickens with flesh that is tender or can be easily microwaved, and chickens that are wingless so they wont need bigger cages. The next step would be to just create and replicate animals torsos -- sheer organ sacks -- and dispense with superfluous heads and limbs. In fact, scientists have undertaken this gruesome procedure with mice and frogs.

To invoke another brilliant anticipation by H.G. Wells, in his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, the agricultural use of genetics and cloning has produced horrible monstrosities. Transgenic animals often are born deformed, and suffer from fatal bleeding disorders, arthritis, tumors, stomach ailments, kidney disease, diabetes, inability to nurse and reproduce, behavioral and metabolic disturbances, high mortality rates, and Large Offspring Syndrome. A Maryland team of scientists created the infamous "Beltway pig" afflicted with arthritis, deformities, and respiratory disease. Cows engineered with bovine growth hormone (rBGH) suffer from mastitis, hoof and leg maladies, reproductive problems, numerous abnormalities, and early death. Similarly, experiments in the genetic engineering of salmon have led to rapid growth and various aberrations. A Maine lab specialized in breeding sick and abnormal mice who go by names such as Fathead, Fidget, Hairless, Dumpy, and Greasy. One study claimed that cloned cows are ten times more likely to be unhealthy as their natural counterparts. Such are the aberrant results where technology flagrantly disrupts natural processes and life cycles.

Breeding Uncertainty

Right now we don't know what the limits [of science and technology] are. All the traditional rules we thought about the ... animal kingdom ... are thrown out the window.
Micheal Phillips, Congressional Office of Technology Assessment

Despite the claims of its champions, the genetic engineering of animals is a radical departure from natural evolution and traditional forms of animal breeding. It involves rapid species change and manipulation of genes rather than whole organisms. Moreover, scientists can create novel beings across species boundaries that previously were unbridgeable. Ours is a world where cloned calves carry human genes, human embryo cells are merged with enucleated cows' eggs, monkeys are bred with jellyfish DNA, a surrogate horse gives birth to a zebra, and tiger cubs emerge from the womb of an ordinary housecat.

The ability to clone a desired genetic type brings the animal kingdom into entirely new realms of exploitation and commercialization. From the new scientific perspective, animals are framed as genetic information that can be edited, transposed, and copied endlessly. Pharming and xenotransplantation build on the system of factory farming that dates from the postwar period and is based on the confinement and intensive management of animals within enclosed buildings that are prisonhouses of suffering.

The proclivity of the science-industry complex to instrumentalize animals as nothing but resources for human use and profit worsens in the Brave New World. Still confined for maximal control, animals are no longer seen as whole species, but rather as fragments of genetic information to be manipulated for any purpose. Weighty ethical and ecological concerns in the new modes of animal appropriation are largely ignored, as animals are still framed in the 17th century Cartesian worldview that views them as nonsentient machines. As Jeremy Rifkin puts it, "Reducing the animal kingdom to customized, mass-produced replications of specific genotypes is the final articulation of the mechanistic, industrial frame of mind. A world where all life is transformed into engineering standards and made to conform to market values is a dystopian nightmare, and needs to be opposed by every caring and compassionate human being who believes in the intrinsic value of life."

Animals patenting has become a huge industry for multinational corporations and chemical companies. PPL Therapeutics, Genzyme Transgenics, Advanced Cell Technology, and other enterprises are issuing broad patents claims on methods of cloning nonhuman animals and the life forms that result. PPL Therapeutics, the company that "invented" Dolly, has applied for the patents and agricultural rights to the production of all genetically altered mammals that could produce therapeutic proteins in their milk. Nexia Biotechnologies obtained exclusive rights to all results from spider silk research. Patent number 4,736,866 was granted to Du Pont for Oncomouse, which the U.S. Patent Office described as a new "composition of matter."

Certainly, genetics does not augur solely negative developments for animals. Given the reality of dramatic species extinction and loss of biodiversity, scientists are collecting the sperm and eggs of endangered species like the giant panda in order to preserve them in a "frozen zoo." It is stimulating indeed to ponder the possibilities of a Jurassic Park scenario of reconstructing extinct species (as, for example, scientists recently have uncovered the well-preserved remains of a tasmanian tiger and a woolly mammoth).

But critics dismiss this as an impossible fantasy and a misguided search for a technofix that distracts focus from the real problem of preserving habitat and biodiversity. Even if animals could be cloned, there is no way to clone habitats lost forever to chainsaws and bulldozers. Moreover, the behaviors of cloned animals would unavoidably be altered and they would end up in zoos or absurd entertainment settings. Additionally, there is the likelihood that genetic engineering and cloning would aggravate biodiversity loss to the extent it creates monolithic superbreeds that could be easily wiped out by disease. There is also great potential for ecological disaster when new organisms enter an environment, and genetically modified organisms are especially unpredictable in their behavior and effects.

Yet advances in genetics also may bypass and obviate pharming and xenotransplantation through use of stem cell technologies that clone human cells, tissues, or perhaps even entire organs and limbs from human embryos or an individual's own cells. This would eliminate at once the problem of immune rejection and the need for animals.

The development of new sciences and technologies therefore is ambiguous, open-ended, and unpredictable. For now, the only certainty is that the juggernaut of the genetic revolution is rapidly advancing and that in the name of medical progress animals are being victimized and exploited in new ways.

Steve Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, a long time vegan and animal rights activist, and author of numerous books and articles in the areas of social theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Some of his writings are posted at

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