Killing us Softly with Science

Medicine is magical and magical is art. There's the Boy in the Bubble and the baby with the baboon heart. - Paul Simon

by Robert T. Nanninga

ecently it was reported that researchers at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center have created the world's first genetically modified primate. In October, a baby rhesus monkey was born if that word still applies with the genes of a jellyfish. Besides lending credence to the "man created god in his own image" argument, it is now safe to say Pandora's box is officially open.

Known as "ANDi" - inserted DNA spelled backwards this male monkey received an extra gene while he was still an unfertilized egg. Under a microscope, this biological marker glows green. Two other monkeys inserted with the jellyfish gene were stillborn. Under a microscope and ultra violet light, the fingernails and hair of the stillborn glowed green. The placenta glowed green as well.

The Federally-funded scientists who conducting this "research" say it's a step towards creating a better way of studying human diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes and breast cancer. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) strongly disagree.

Knowledge is not always power. Knowing that there are people being paid to mess with the building blocks of nature is far from reassuring. Media-friendly Franken-animals such as Dolly the Sheep and ANDi can do only so much to glamorize the fact that humans are swinging blindly in the biological dark.

According to Dr. Mira Fong of San Francisco State University, genetic engineering is "unsacred liaison that goes against all the laws of natural selection." High tech species metamorphosis is nothing new. We humans have been treating biology like a set of tinker toys long before we could even begin to guess the outcome. Domestic dog breeds such as pit bulls and lhasa apsos are perfect examples of low tech genetic engineering gone awry.

Not only has the science of animal breeding evolved, so has our understanding of the consequences. In 2001, we now know full well what's at stake. Yet certain members of our society continue to threaten the fragile web of life out of some whacked sense of pride and an uncontrollable pursuit of profit, while others revel in the promise of eternal life science offers.

In a Disney sort of way, glowing monkeys could be seen as a harmless lark if the biological manipulation started and stopped there. Transgenic mice have carried human oncogenes for more than a decade, and multinational biotechnology companies are attempting to breed "germfree" pigs with human genes for organs that are less likely to be rejected when transplanted into the human body. Even fish are being subjected to human DNA. Having seen the film classic The Incredible Mr. Limpet, I know this will only lead to trouble.

Xenotransplantation, the practice of transferring organs from one species to another, is like playing Russian roulette with an unknown number of diseases and unexpected mutations. Scientific bestiality is as wrong as its barnyard equivalent, and to think humans can casually tip the balance without paying the consequences is as reckless as it is delusional.

Virologists are urging caution, and rightly so. Biotransfers have had disastrous effects in the past, and continue to wreak havoc. Syphilis is known to have been passed from sheep to man, and mad cow disease is passing from bovine to human with at an increasing rate. And who hasn't heard of the killer corn threatening monarch butterflies?

Considering the United Kingdom has just approved human cloning research, it's just a matter of time before humans start adding designer genes to their children as well. Perhaps we can use cat genes to give little Johnny night vision. The possibilities are endless. If a family is predisposed towards baldness, a wide selection of hair-growth genes could be borrowed from species such as llamas or orangutans.

With nearly seven billion people on the planet, it seems completely gratuitous to try to keep the broken ones alive with organs harvested from factory-farmed animals. Courting global disaster for the sake of those unwilling to meet their maker in a timely manner seems the utmost in anthropocentric behavior. I wonder if humans will tire of being the center of the universe before the Nemesis Effect claims us all.

Pandora's box is not only open, it's lid has been ripped off its hinges, and thrown to the wind...

Robert Nanninga is a free-lance writer, producer and environmental journalist. A native of Vista living in Leucadia, he Chairs San Diego ZPG, as well as representing coastal North County on the Green County Council. He can be contacted at: