Costly crossbreeds are the latest fad among the rich and the 'socially visible', who vie with each other to add them to their kitty. No expense is spared in acquiring these pets, some of which cost more than a car. Designer dogs were the first in the fray; they made commendable companions and a series of these cross breeds were developed to suit the connoisseur's taste. The felines, on the other hand, are hugely popular for their stature and beauty. They too boast of a band of followers. The pedigree of these lifestyle pets can be traced to a 'secret mix' drawn from an exotic gene pool. Some even come with their DNA fingerprint! Needless to say, they are user-friendly.
Tinkering with the genes has been an indulgence since the time man co-existed with animals. But it is only now that the warning bells have begun to toll! Here's why...
Several cat lovers are allergic to their feline pets but choose to suffer in silence due to their overwhelming love for these animals. Cat allergens are proteins secreted by the cat's skin and salivary glands. They are minute and may remain airborne for lengthy periods. These potent proteins induce allergies, especially in children, besides causing respiratory diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis.
"Gene silencing" is a molecular technology, which helps to suppress a gene function. Using this technique, the genes, involved in the production of the allergy-causing protein, were silenced. An American company, Allerca, used this technique to design hypoallergenic cats that are put forth as a boon to several cat lovers.
Not to be left behind, the South Koreans, who have been in the news for all the wrong reasons, have cloned cats with modified fluorescence proteins. It was done with a desire to develop a futuristic cure for human genetic diseases. But for now, the cats glow when exposed to UV light; they look very chic and appealing!
Cat allergens causes allergy in humans, but not in cats. They are natural proteins that are present in them. It is all very well to silence genes to cater to cat lovers, but one cannot help wondering if enough probes have been carried out to assess its effects on the cats and to evaluate the authenticity of these claims! One also wonders if there are human allergens that are offensive to our feline friends!!
Bio-engineered pets are the latest additions to a meandering list of 'artistic' expressions. When Adam Brandejs, a Canadian sculptor, masterminded Genpets, he intended for them to serve as pets and companions.
These mass-produced, bio-engineered forms resemble the 'bonsai' versions of the fabled gnomes. They twitch, claw, shake and head-butt within their plastic confines, and depend on feeding tubes to provide them with energy.
But sadly, the lives that flicker in these plastic bags, have been deemed worthless due to their utter dependancy and have been marketed as average kids' toys.
While it beats the pulp out of one's senses wondering what these 'creations' aim to achieve, it may be listed as yet another example of bio-technology gone awry.
The Supreme Incest-Artificial Gametes
Researchers in Newcastle, in the UK, have now put forth the possibility of deriving human sperms from stem cells inside a laboratory. They have revealed to the world that ovaries and testes are dispensable.
In other words, sperms and eggs may be derived from the body cells of a single person through a process called 'haplodization'.
Although this technology is God-sent for the 'issueless' and same-sex couples, it has a hidden agenda. Besides altering the intimate aspects of the human race, it carries the potential to make members of a particular sex, redundant.
Advance technologies in the field of reproductive medicine have instilled faith among the quasi-fertile. Laboratories are now turning into 'baby factories'. So much so that even the type of sperm, that is designated to fertilize an egg, may be pre-determined.
Although sperm selection is largely employed to counter genetic diseases, possibilities of a non- stop horror show exists, within the ART realm.
Techniques like Pre-implantation Genetics (PGD) are so powerful that they have the potency to select desirable embryos and discard the less- appealing ones. In this technique, a single blastomere from an embryo is selected and tested for the presence of a 'bad'gene. Now if the embryo tests positive it is discarded, without so much as a whimper.
Skeptics are wondering at the prospects of embryo selection against a cosmetic /eugenic gradient. The day is not far off when the demand for a dimpled cheek or a blue eye would be so compelling that parents would strive to move the proverbial mountain, now a molehill, to realize their dreams. One also wonders as to how far we are from creating a Frankenstein!
Genes and the future
While gene therapy has been seen as the only hope for a healthier tomorrow, it is also true that genetic technology has caricatured life to a large extent.
Most of the research in the field of molecular biology and reproductive medicine is monitored and streamlined for safety. The ethical issues are thoroughly assessed and the risk factors carefully evaluated. Nevertheless, the possibility of these techniques being mere toys in unscrupulous hands can never be ignored.
Scientists must always keep their channels of communication open. Great care must be taken to ensure that these groundbreaking techniques are only used as tools to repair the chinks in the hereditary armor and that they do not find their way to the hall of shame!
Dr. REEJA THARU/K