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GENE-ALTERED PETS: Creatures that light up your life
BIOTECHNOLGY is a fascinating field. It has so much to offer society, and it is not inaccurate to say that it will inevitably be the salvation of our planet. Advocates can immediately point to its beneficial uses in agriculture and the production of eco-friendly fuels.
However, it seems that a very fine line is crossed when science begins to toy with nature. In fact, it is almost impossible to utter the term “genetic engineering” without raising several ethical questions and rallying its opponents.
The world today would be a very different place if science was unregulated. In many instances, control over its application is necessary for there is such a thing as mad scientists who will stop at nothing to test their latest scientific experiments. However, the more level-headed scientists become frustrated when practical and theoretically beneficial applications are simply dismissed on ethical grounds.
Bioluminescent biotechnology is one seemingly innocent branch of science that has brought some interesting ideas to the table. Biogeneticists in this field have spoken about glowing trees that light up highways, agricultural crops that glow when they need watering, and even bioluminescent methods of detecting dodgy meats and other foods. Yet the real controversy arose when they began speaking about bioluminescent pets.
GloFish sparks debate
Pet stores in the United States have been under the spotlight since 2004 over the sale of genetically-modified fish that glow in the dark. Sold under the name GloFish, these creatures carry a lofty claim to fame: they are the nation’s first officially sanctioned genetically-modified pet, and scientists say that they won’t be the last.
The GloFish is a zebra danio that is made to glow red by the insertion of a gene found in sea coral. Naturally black and white, the new GloFish has gone from curiosity to a focal point in the debate over biotechnology.
There are valid points to be made on both sides of the debate. The central ethical concern centres on the idea of altering the genetic make-up of an animal when there’s no purpose besides our own pleasure. However, most bio-geneticists will argue that this has already been occurring for years.
The Eighth Day
The pet industry is in many ways a peculiar venue for such a heated debate over the wisdom of genetic modification. The whole notion of a pet, after all, is based on generations upon generations of selective breeding aimed at drawing out certain characteristics that make animals more suitable companions.
Think about dog breeding and all the breeds of dog that wouldn’t be around without human interference. These pooches may not glow in the dark, but the fact that their genes were somehow manipulated can still be used in favour of genetic engineering.
The scary part is that geneticists could very well create an alien-looking, glow-in-the-dark dog. They’ve done it with mice and fish — the latter being the more popular. In fact, the GloFish has absolutely opened the floodgates to a whole new pet trade in genetically engineered animals.
Upsetting the natural balance of the wild
People who are opposed to the idea may also bring up the risk of unregulated gene-altered pets upsetting the natural balance of nature and the wild. However, the idea of a rogue GloFish escaping its aquarium and spawning an army of mutant glow-fish in the wild that ultimately wipe out other species of fish does not presently have a lot of backing.
Yet the question remains: How will a glowing fish benefit society? What’s interesting is that the GloFish was not originally engineered to be a pet. In fact, its creation was rather strange. According to a Washington Post article:
“…glowing fish of a related species were originally developed in a Singapore laboratory for use as a modern-day canary in a coal mine. The fish were supposed to indicate, by glowing, if a given body of water is polluted.”
Although this practical use of glowing fish failed, there still seems to be more weight on the side of the debate that argues that genetic modification of animals in general can be advantageous to both people and pets. Researchers are already at work trying to create a cat that won’t aggravate its owner’s allergies. Other possible creations include a dog that isn’t as susceptible to hip dysplasia, an ailment common among German shepherds and Labradors that is associated with over-breeding.
Proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence
Some other proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence include:
• Detecting bacterial species in suspicious corpses.
• Novelty pets that bioluminesce (rabbits, mice, fish etcetera).
• Agricultural crops and domestic plants that luminesce when they need watering.
• Bio-identifiers for escaped convicts and mental patients.
• Glowing trees to line highways, thus saving on government electricity bills.
• Christmas trees that do not need lights, reducing danger from electrical fires.
• New methods for detecting bacterial contamination of meats and other foods.
So will (or should) biotechnology be left to genetically modify our future pets? It seems that that is already the case. Whether they will be bioluminescent remains a question of personal taste and will ultimately be left to public demand. There will always be a market for the bizarre. Would I ever add a GloFish to my aquarium? Sure. You can get them in the U.S. for $5.