Chemistry · mini-review · stuff I read

Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts

Summary from Goodreads: 

For centuries, we’ve toyed with our creature companions, breeding dogs that herd and hunt, housecats that look like tigers, and teacup pigs that fit snugly in our handbags. But what happens when we take animal alteration a step further, engineering a cat that glows green under ultraviolet light or cloning the beloved family Labrador? Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life. How are we using it?

In Frankenstein’s Cat, the journalist Emily Anthes takes us from petri dish to pet store as she explores how biotechnology is shaping the future of our furry and feathered friends. As she ventures from bucolic barnyards to a “frozen zoo” where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures, she discovers how we can use cloning to protect endangered species, craft prosthetics to save injured animals, and employ genetic engineering to supply farms with disease-resistant livestock. Along the way, we meet some of the animals that are ushering in this astonishing age of enhancement, including sensor-wearing seals, cyborg beetles, a bionic bulldog, and the world’s first cloned cat.

Through her encounters with scientists, conservationists, ethicists, and entrepreneurs, Anthes reveals that while some of our interventions may be trivial (behold: the GloFish), others could improve the lives of many species—including our own. So what does biotechnology really mean for the world’s wild things? And what do our brave new beasts tell us about ourselves?

With keen insight and her trademark spunk, Anthes highlights both the peril and the promise of our scientific superpowers, taking us on an adventure into a world where our grandest science fiction fantasies are fast becoming reality.

A very well laid-out book of popular science with chapters building off previous chapters. Anthes has a great tone – she doesn’t use a lot of tech-speak but also doesn’t bog down in explaining every, tiny bit of biology so a wide range of people should be able to enjoy the book. You’ll need to understand how cells work and replicate at a basic level on your own.  A great sense of humor at times, too.

Anthes brings a lot of good ideas to the fore that I think have slipped past the news feeds because they just don’t have the right “hooks”.  Like the frozen zoo – what are the ethical issues with banking DNA from endangered animals before they are lost to us forever?  How does genetic modification effect our livestock (and since GMO crops are a current hot-button issue, if a cow has been engineered to be resistant to mad-cow disease is that good or bad)?  We love biotech that helps us – humans – to have stronger hearts, better prosthetics, and less chronic disease but that same technology surrounds us in the animal world, too.

Dear FTC: I obtained an ARC of this book via a friend who attended a conference.

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