For a long time, kids would eagerly anticipate the arrival of the traveling circus. Inevitably, there’d be a strategically-placed curtain standing between them and some really wild “freaks” of nature. After paying with a dime or a quarter, perhaps, they gained entry into a world of the most bizarre animals, like a two-headed calf.
Today, there are new animal “freaks,” not of nature, but borne of researchers’ imaginative (and often controversial) efforts at genetic engineering.
Here are some of the more recent examples of bizarre genetic engineering in animals. Rather than paying your money at the circus, you might be doing so at your local grocery store to buy low-lactose milk, for example.
8. Gone hog wild
So, we start at the pond where that ugly algae expands across the surface every summer. That algae grows profusely in the presence of phosphorous. So, we work backward to the streams that feed the pond high-phosphorous hog manure. From there, we work our way back to the pigs that cause the problem in the first place.
What to do? Well, engineer the pig to produce less phosphorous. Researchers found that injecting both mouse DNA and E. Coli bacteria into a pig embryo does the trick. How they came up with the idea for this creative genetic cocktail is unknown. But, it apparently works. Their creation, the “enviropig,” has 70 percent less phosphorous in its poop.
One problem may arise — convincing folks that it’s perfectly fine to eat pork products that have anything to do with E. Coli!
7. Less of a bovine blast here
Any of you enjoying a diet high in cellulose (like if you’re a termite) will quickly notice a problematic byproduct — gas. It turns out that a bacteria arises from injecting cellulose, and that bacteria just loves to produce methane. Undeterred by this gaseous gastric challenge, researchers at the University of Alberta have engineered cows to produce fewer of these bacteria, and therefore less methane — 25 percent less, in fact.
Methane is also unpopular among environmentalists because it is only second to carbon dioxide in adding to the “greenhouse effect” that is warming our planet’s atmosphere at far too high a rate.
6. In case you missed out before your first birthday
Within the past couple of years, Chinese scientists have set out to infuse dairy cows with certain human genes so that they could basically start producing milk with the same advantageous qualities as human breast milk.
5. Let’s be more tolerant
Lactose intolerance really gets in the way of good nutrition for those that suffer from it. Milk, even when not from the source in #6 above, offers a wealth of protein and vital nutrients. But alas, some ethnicities are especially burdened with this problem. Among certain groups in Asia and Africa, as many as 90 percent of individuals are lactose intolerant.
So, the geneticists have arrived to address this challenge. They injected genes from organisms called archaea, that are quite talented at limiting lactose production, into cow embryos. 14 embryos ultimately produced five calves. Three actually carried the low-lactose gene.
One, dubbed “Lucks,” survived. She is a genetically modified Holstein that will be eagerly tested when she starts lactating to see just how much the lactose content in her milk has been reduced. Lactation generally starts in dairy cattle at 25 months of age, so stay tuned.
There is a hope that, if this research proves successful herds of low-lactose cows could be benefiting broad swaths of the population in just 5-10 years.
4. An “udderly” fishy tale?
From Mongolia comes news of an effort to introduce a certain roundworm gene into dairy cattle. So far, this does not sound too appetizing. However, this effort expanded omega-3 fatty acids in the milk by over 400 percent. What’s more, it cut the less desirable omega-6 unsaturated fat, linked to cancer and heart disease, by half.
3. Hey skeeter, just drop dead
Efforts are afoot to re-engineer male mosquitoes so that they simply keel over in the midst of the reproductive cycle. This may disappoint the females, but not the researchers. The prospect of releasing hordes of “killer mosquitoes” into the wild may be one of the better examples of genetic modification resulting in potentially catastrophic consequences. What we don’t want biting us on the neck we may very well need to maintain some sort of balance in the Eco-system.
2. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, said the goat
Researchers have long respected the spider’s ability to generate surpassingly strong strands of silk-like material as they weave their elaborate death traps. The hope was that this material could be produced on a large enough scale to be used in everything from parachute cords to artificial ligaments. In 2000, a company called Nexia inserted the spider’s web-generating gene into a goat’s DNA. The goal was to get the goat to produce “silk milk,” milk that contained a special silk protein that the company has dubbed “Biosteel.” The world is still awaiting commercial-level production, however.
1. Cloning can be hit or Missy
Most have heard of the online institution, The University of Phoenix, but its founder is not so well-known. John Sperling parlayed his marriage of the internet and education into a net worth exceeding a billion dollars. It was therefore not too pricey for him to donate $3.7 million back in 1998 to fund Texas A&M’s effort to clone his beloved dog “Missy.”
The University’s quest for a cuddly clone failed. However, perhaps because researchers thought that the cat was a little lower on the evolutionary ladder, they went forward with efforts to clone a cat. December 22, 2001 was the birth date of “CopyCat.” Einstein purportedly went through a thousand kinds of filaments before finding one that would work in a light bulb. Texas A&M only had to go through 188 clonal embryos before coming up with their CopyCat.
So, these are ten of the more interesting genetically modified (GE) animals. Such efforts generate more than a minor amount of controversy. For example, the UK’s Daily Telegraph questioned Wendy Higgins from the Humane Society International to weigh in on the issue. She suggested that this was a morally irresponsible direction in which to head, and that unintended consequences of such alterations in GE animals often appear, like deformities.
Genewatch director Dr. Helen Wallace also expressed concern, citing food safety issues. One only needs to ponder that E. Coli and the pig embryo to imagine that she may have a point. The whole effort is nonetheless more than fascinating, and scientists are unlikely to show much constraint in the name of scientific progress, dangers notwithstanding.