Custom Cats: How Genetic Engineering is Changing the World of Pets
by: Grant Carroll
When people hear the phrase “genetically modified organism” (GMO), They picture fruits, veggies or grain that’s been altered in some way to be cheaper or produced more abundantly. Plant GMOs are usually made with the purpose of solving hunger problems around the world by producing enough food to feed humanity’s exploding population. However, now the term GMO can be applied to something many of us hold dear in our lives…our pets. The company Allerca Pet Lifestyles from California announced last month that they will be selling kittens next year that have been genetically modified to be hypoallergenic. Humans have altered animal genomes for thousands of years through artificial selection (breeding), and even though this new form of genetic tinkering needs to be thoroughly tested before it’s put up for sale, demand is bringing it rushing into the market.
It is hard for one to argue completely against humans altering other animals’ genomes, especially since we’ve already been doing it for much of our history. Diverse breeds of dogs and cats have arisen over the millennia through human efforts of artificial selection. Natural selection created the wild wolves and dogs from which our domesticated friends descended. One could argue that since we’ve already changed animal DNA to fit our desires and needs, there is nothing unethical about genetically modifying today’s pets. It just accomplishes in one generation what usually takes several generations of breeding. It also creates phenotypes that we might never see arise naturally.
One thing that many people agree on is the need for extensive testing before this technology goes to market. The PETA has argued that there is no way of knowing the long-term effects of genetic engineering on a cat’s genome, and they’re right. To date, no such study has been done proving that genetic engineering is completely safe for any animal. In this particular case, scientists have silenced a gene is cats that produces their most common allergen. The gene still exists, but it’s not able to produce it’s protein.
What needs to be done is extensive research over many years to study not only the genetically modified individuals but also their offspring.
In spite of this, there seems to be nothing that can slow the tide of selling GMO pets. Proposed bills that would ban their sale failed in California last year. Though many people protest, GMO pets are coming to market. Hopefully there won’t be too much damage done.
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