I was discussing with my husband about what would make an interesting read for the ‘Animal’ category, and we got to talking about genetically engineered animals – and indeed, genetically engineered everything, as just about everything from corn to human skin is tinkered with in laboratories, and some of these things are just accepted as the norm.
Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification or genetic manipulation, is the direct manipulation of an organism's genes using biotechnology. In research studies, animals that have been safely genetically engineered (GE) include cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, fish, rats, and mice. But are we messing with nature too much?
I recalled Dolly the sheep, remember her? She was a female Finnish Dorset sheep and the first mammal cloned from an adult cell back in 1996. She was the only lamb that survived to adulthood from 277 attempts.
Plant-based genetic engineering paved the way for corn that has been modified by feed engineers to be resistant to certain bugs, and food grown this way has to be marked on packages as GMO (Genetic Modified Organisms) – actually, I am not sure this would encourage me to buy it or not.
Gene-modified tissue-engineered skin - the next generation of skin substitutes - is one of great interest in the medical world for the treatment of burns, chronic wounds, etc. Tissue engineered skin is one of the most advanced tissue builds, yet it lacks several important functions including those provided by hair follicles, sebaceous glands, sweat glands, etc.
And it doesn’t stop there – how about no-cry onions, longer-lasting tomatoes, glow-in-the-dark cats (why? I wondered, so you can find them in the dark?), cows that pass less gas (surely this must be good for the environment!), and more topical, the Covid vaccination, the result of mRNA genetic sequencing to help a person’s body recognise the Covid virus.
Livestock has been engineered to grow faster, improve milk production, be healthier and resist diseases. I thought it would be years before we saw genetically modified meat on our plates, but I read that cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, already exists in the form of ‘chicken bites’ from an American company called ‘Eat Just’, and dozens of firms are already developing cultivated chicken, beef and pork, with a view to slashing the impact of industrial livestock production on the climate and nature crises, as well as providing cleaner, drug-free and cruelty-free meat.
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists created beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. Whatever next? – designer babies are already among us – a healthcare wonder or an unethical horror?
As with any new technology, the full set of risks associated with genetic engineering have almost certainly not yet been identified. I can only hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for normal people.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.