Making “creatures that work for us” – Animal Farm (3)

The final episode of the Channel 4 documentary series Animal Farm (originally broadcast on 2nd April 2007; TRILT identifier 0062CC6E) continues many of the themes explored in both Episode 1 and Episode 2. Despite being entitled Arrival of the Clones, this episode again deals predominantly with transgenic animals; Olivia Judson and Giles Coren meet “a spider-goat” (00:05:25), fluorescent pigs and fish, and an “Enviropig” (00:20:47) – as well as a cloned horse, a ‘resurrected’ Banteng, and a room full of “mutant mice” (00:48:00).

In the first section of the show we meet Prof. Randy Lewis who has taken the gene for spider silk from a spider and incorporated it into the genes of a goat, to create a transgenic organism that is “part mammal, part arachnid” (00:03:30). This gene is expressed in the mammary glands of the goat such that it is able to produce the proteins that are the building blocks of spider silk in its milk. Though there is a lot of additional work involved in ‘spinning’ these proteins into fibres, these goats represent the first step in the potential mass production of synthetic spider silk fibres, which are both strong and light, and also biodegradable. These fibres have numerous medical applications including artificial joints, ligaments and limbs, though also military uses, for example in the next generation of body armour (read more in the Daily Telegraph).

Following on from the previous programme’s glow-in-the-dark rabbits, this episode features two more fluorescent transgenic animals: a GFP pig, seemingly created for very similar purposes to the rabbits created by Louis-Marie Houdebine; and fish with a transgene from sea choral, which, at present serves a very different purpose. Originally developed as an “early warning system for toxins in water” (00:15:47), and intended to have the transgene “switch on and off in response to the animal’s environment” (00:15:00; further details are given in the New Scientist). However, since “scientists are still working on the switch” (00:15:57), these fish have instead become the first GMOs to go on sale as pets (available in the US under the trademark GloFish).

Two other transgenic animals discussed here share particular similarities. These are the Enviropig and the ‘resurrected’ Banteng, both created in response to the environmental effects of human activity. The Enviropig’s creators claim that this organism solves “an impossible problem of biology” (00:20:23). It contains a “man made gene” (00:21:17), constructed in the laboratory from sections of bacterial and mouse genome, which was inserted into a fertilised pig egg. Unlike normal pigs, this animal produces an enzyme in its saliva which allows it to digest organic phosphorus, thereby reducing the phosphorus content of pig manure, which has otherwise become a pollutant by-product of intensive farming.

The ‘resurrected’ Banteng, however, ‘solves’ what might be seen as a more serious side-effect of human activity: the possible extinction of “50% of all lifeforms…within the next 100 years” (00:36:38).

The ethical question underlying all these creations is: is it morally right, or justifiable, for us to be modify animals for our own medical benefit, personal pleasure, or to correct environmental problems caused by human activity? While these issues are not explicitly addressed in the programme, the techniques and organisms featured in this episode of Animal Farm, would make it an excellent resource for group discussion of this question. Examples and possible answers are discussed in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post (pdf).

Overall, episodes 1, 2 and 3 of this series have covered a wide range of technologies and associated ethical issues, at a level of detail that makes them ideal reusable learning objects. If I have one criticism, it is of the closing statement of the series: “one thing is certain: the genie has been let out of the bottle, and genetic science is here to stay” (00:59:10). It seems a shame that, having opened up and, given the two-presenter format, literally discussed such a wide range of contentious ethical issues, the series ends with a banal cliche. In terms of the selective breeding of both plants and animals – including those depicted in Animal Farm, ‘genetic science’ has been around for a long time, indeed, since before the gene came to be recognised as “the fundamental unit of heredity” (Ricard, 2005). What the biotechnologies shown in Animal Farm seem to offer is an unprecedented level of precision (as suggested in episode 1) and, hence, the ability to make very specific and targeted genetic alterations.

They do, however, seem to raise new ethical questions, ones which – as the unresolved argument between Olivia Judson and Giles Coren suggests – may have no fixed answer. In this sense, a genetic science informed by debates in bioethics (as I believe ours is) seems to have an uncertain future, though only because our answers to the ethical questions posed by the series will, inevitably, shape where transgenics, for example, goes next.

All timings given here are approximate, and correspond to quote timings on the ERA recording of Animal Farm – Part 3 of 3, CH4 2100-2200pm, 02 April 2007.

One Response to Making “creatures that work for us” – Animal Farm (3)

  1. […] on Episode 2 and Episode 3 can also be found on this […]

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