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Cuddle up to ‘Frankenfish?’ Author makes case for genetically-modified animals

Emily Anthes says give genetically-modified animals a chance. Cats can be made to glow if given a gene from a jellyfish or sea anemone. (AP Photo/file)

A lot of people get squeamish at the thought of eating what some call “frankenfish,” or other genetically-modified animals, but writer Emily Anthes tells KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank Show that we should give it a chance.

Anthes is a science-focused journalist whose work has been featured in Popular Science, Slate and Wired. Her new book “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts,” introduces readers to some of the new frontiers of human beings’ animal meddling, including efforts to make glowing cats and remote-controlled cockroaches. Anthes says genetically-modified animals are already at arm’s reach.

“You can buy Glofish, which are genetically modified pets that glow in different colors,” says Anthes. “They’re sold in Petco, Walmart.”

Anthes says scientists make animals glow by adding a gene from a jelly fish or sea anemone, creatures that already have the characteristics that give them a fluorescent color. In another novel marvel, scientists have also managed to create cyborg cockroaches, says Anthes.

“It’s a cockroach that you stick wires into its antenna, the antenna are what roaches normally use to navigate, and you can use a little remote control and essentially hijack its motor functions. You can force it to turn right or left as it’s walking around.”

Obviously potentially greater benefits or risks with genetically modified animals come into play when we talk about eating them. One of the biggest headline-makers in genetically-modified animals is a type of salmon that is altered to grow twice as fast as a typical one.

“It’s a salmon that has been genetically modified to reach its adult size twice as fast as normal, a year and a half instead of three years,” says Anthes. “It was created several decades ago in fact, and it’s been before the FDA for approval for 17 years.”

If the FDA approves the fish, Anthes says it will be the first genetically-modified animal approved to enter the food chain. She says scientists have shown the fish are identical to normal salmon, down to the molecular level, and many precautions have been taken to ensure this fish won’t just get out and mix with others.

“The company that makes these fish has taken a number of steps to,for instance, protect wild salmon populations,” says Anthes. “The fish will be sterile. They’re all female so they can’t breed with each other and create a new super race of salmon. They’re being raised in isolated tanks in the highlands of Panama, where even if somehow they jumped free of the tank and swam down the river into the ocean, the water is too warm for them to survive.”

“None of these things are guarantees of course, and nothing is without risk but most scientists and experts who have reviewed the proposals say it’s about as low risk as it gets.”

Anthes says many people forget about the risks we’re already taking in the production of many foods.

“Conventional salmon farms have their own problems and there are concerns about what if regular farmed salmon get loose,” says Anthes. “The world’s appetite for meat is increasing and there are a lot of problems with the livestock industry beyond the animal suffering issue. It’s one of the biggest polluters in the world for instance.”

Whether it’s these new genetically-modified salmon or meat created off-animal in a lab, Anthes says we should explore it. “If there is a better way to make meat I say bring it on.” She says she thinks there should be proper testing and oversight but that opportunities should be explored.

“I think regulation is important. I think laws and ethical panels are important. But I think we also should take the applications on a case by case basis. If it’s safe and effective I’m for it. If it causes suffering or is dangerous, let’s not approve it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” says Anthes.

“I don’t think all genetic engineering is good, that all biotechnology is good, but I also don’t think it’s all evil,” says Anthes. “What I don’t want people to do is just have this knee-jerk reflex against it.”

Emily Anthes will be appearing at Town Hall Seattle Thursday evening at 7:30 p.m.

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