Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blurring the lines between life forms

Composite creatures, such as the mythical centaur, have long lived in the human imagination. Our growing power to directly design life forms should give us pause, says bio-ethicist Paul Root Wolpe. Once we perfect the technologies in animals and start using them in humans, what will be the ethical guidelines?

You may have already heard of the liger, the lion-tiger hybrid that is the largest cat in the world. Now meet the beefalo (buffalo-cattle), the geep (goat-sheep) and the camma (camel-llama).

A growing number of such hybrid animals exist due to selective breeding combined with genetic manipulation. “For the first time in our history, we’re able to directly design organisms,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics in a TED conversation (see video below). “We’re able to manipulate life with unprecedented power.”

Bioengineers have removed the bio-luminescent gene from jellyfish and used it to make kittens, pigs and puppies that glow in the dark. Some states already allow sales of genetically altered Zebra fish, a black-and-white aquarium favorite that now comes in glowing yellow, red and green.

Wolpe wonders, “Do we get to go to ‘Pets-R-Us’ someday and say, ‘I’d like to have a dog. I’d like it to have the head of a dachshund, the body of a retriever, maybe some pink fur, and let’s make it glow in the dark.’”

It’s past time for us to confront tough questions about bio-engineering, Wolpe says. How are we going to define animal species in this new era of directed evolution?

He points out that most of the food we buy in the supermarket today already has a genetically modified component to it. “So even as we have worried about it, we’ve allowed it to go on in this country without regulation, or even any identification on the package.”

Cloning and computers are further pushing the envelope of transgenic animals. Labs have created organic robots, including Goliath beetles implanted with computer chips that allow engineers to use a joystick to control their flight. This technology is not limited to insects. One lab has created a robo-rat with electrodes wired into its brain and a tiny camera mounted on its head.

“This is not science fiction, it’s happening now,” Wolpe says. “Once we perfect these technologies in animals and start using them in human beings, what are the ethical guidelines we’ll use? Is it okay to manipulate and create whatever creatures we want?”

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