Friday, April 6, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Genetic Engineering

I'm going to call The Island of Doctor Moreau the first instance of genetic engineering in fiction. It's not really presented as such, because DNA research was still in its infancy. Understand what I'm saying here, the book by H. G. Wells came out in 1896, and DNA research was in its infancy... first discovered in 1869; although, no one really knew what it was. Yet. Still, there is no other real explanation for what Moreau is doing in the book, even if that wasn't Wells' point with the novel. Really, he was making a statement against certain types of medical research (specifically, vivisection) which were somewhat horrific and accompanied by great amounts of pain by the "patient." Wells seems to have opened the door to the idea of genetic engineering, at any rate, as fiction throughout the 20th century has been filled with all sorts of genetic engineering and enhancements. The book itself has had many, many adaptations and spin offs.

Genetics and genetic engineering have become one of our modern bogey men, so much of the fiction surrounding genetic engineering has to do with how "playing God," how messing with the natural order of things, will lead to our eventual downfall. Or to a world we don't want to live in. Examples:

Gattaca: A society that revolves around the genetically engineered. Genetic discrimination is pervasive. Valids, those that were born through genetic manipulation to be superior, are the only ones that can qualify for professional positions in society. The in-valids, those born through traditional means, are seen as weaker in all ways and are relegated to menial positions.

Resident Evil: Genetic engineering leads to a zombie apocalypse.

Brave New World: Well, I'll get to this one, later (in a separate post), but this is a book tightly wrapped up in genetic engineering while claiming not be genetic engineering (because it wasn't known, yet, as with Moreau; however, it's clear in concept what is happening).

Of course, the other major example of genetic engineering is in super hero stories and super soldier stories. I'm not even going to bother listing these as there are so, so many. Let's just say they are rampant. Even the clones in Star Wars are genetically engineered.

The first real bit of genetic engineering happened in 1973 with some bacteria. But it was followed up in 1974 with mice. Since then, we've engineered all sorts of things. The food industry does extensive research in genetic engineering; although, people aren't, yet, mostly, at a point where they want to eat food that they know has been altered. However, we tend to have no problem eating, say, cows that have been fed genetically altered corn.

It's even hypothetically possible, at this point, that we could start doing things like choosing the eye color of a baby before it's born. Of course, that's wrapped up in all kinds of ethical arguments, but "they" do think they can do it. If they were allowed. Or, maybe, they have done it, and no one is saying anything about it.

The big thing for me, though, and why I'm taking this back to The Island of Doctor Moreau is that we can do things like
Those are zebrafish. Normally, they look like
They've had genes from coral introduced, and they are commercially available as pets and have been since 2003.

Malaria resistant mosquitoes have also been developed and could prove a huge boon in areas of the world where malaria is a leading cause of death. Trials have shown a reduction of malaria by 80%.

We also have glowing cats:

But these aren't yet available as pets.

Other significant plants and animals that have been genetically engineered:

Venomous cabbage: It's been engineered with scorpion venom in its leaves as a defense against caterpillars, but it harmless to humans.

Goats with spider silk milk: Yes, these goats produce spider silk in their milk which can be used to produced bio-steel. Did you know that spider silk is one of the strongest substances we know of? Stronger than Kevlar. We just can't get enough of it from spiders, but we might be able to from these goats. Or, maybe, we'll end up with Spider-Goat!

Cows that fart less: Why? Because cows are one of the world's leading producers of methane gas, a major cause of global warming. If we can make cows that fart less, we can reduce methane emissions.

I could go on, but there's no need. This stuff is real, but it all started in the pages of a book by H.G. Wells at the end of the 19th century.


  1. OK, I so did not know that about cows. Totally snorted into my coffee over it, though, so thanks for that, Andrew. *smile* I am ashamed to say I've never read H.G. Wells' book, though I've seen the movie. Interesting stuff.

  2. I did a post awhile back on how The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi freaked me out so much with it's genetic engineered world. It all felt so probable the way he wrote it.

    Loving this series.

  3. Mary at Wistful Nebulae posted about the spider silk milk. That is just freaky.
    People eat genetically altered fruit and vegetables every day. Drive by any field here and there's a sign stating which chemically altered seed was used in the field. And we wonder why tomatoes no longer have a taste...

  4. I read The Windup Girl too. The question it poses that I found most interesting is this thing where biotech companies own the gene sequences in particular fruits. They are grown and distributed through their farms until they hit the market.

    I shiver at the thought that every edible plant on earth will be patented and owned by a mega corporation and they will all be entirely sterile so no one can ever grow their own food. Of course they already do that - which is why I can't take last year's tomatoes and grow a new crop this year - I have to buy a new set of seeds from the true owners of the food.

    So, according to Paggalagupi, future hackers will be the folks trying to sequence the DNA of foods so they can grow their own.

    Dammit. It takes so long to do this in my phone I forgot what my point was when I started. I was going somewhere with this, but I've forgotten where that was.

  5. Resident Evil is one of my favorite examples of this. And I love the movie Gattaca. I always thought it was Ethan Hawks best movie. And of course Brave New World is amazing (part of my H post). I think genetic engineering is a fascinating topic that has led to some truly amazing science fiction. Awesome post.

  6. I still don't know what my plan was earlier, but LG has a better spelling of the name than I did...Bacigalupi

  7. There were rumors that a vaccination banana was being developed a few years back, for kids to eat and then be innoculated against measles or TB or some kind of infectious disease (can't remember which.) And of course there's bT corn. And soybeans and many other crops bred to be resistant to bugs w/o external pesticide use.
    I have no idea why anyone would think glowing cats were useful. :))

  8. Oh the power of science! How I love the simplicity and revel in the understanding. I shall take science and its genetic engineering any day over the alternative.

  9. Scary stuff! But wasn't Santa the first to have a glowing animal?

  10. Those goats could make a man rich. What a weird way to score a military contract, eh?

    I raise goats for the marines and air force.

  11. There are so many interesting things being genetically engineered these days! My first child was conceived via IVF, and my research led to some interesting things about choosing various things for people's babies. Had my doctor offered to even select a specific gender for me, I would have been out of there. I can't imagine selecting eye color and other things like that. No. Isn't half the fun of kids discovering what they look like, whose traits they got, etc.?

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  12. I suppose it's like anything else. There will always be those who want to do good, those who want to make money and those who want to conquer the world. I guess genetic engineering offers scope for all three.

  13. Hello, Fellow Challenger. I'm #408 from Rockin' Chair Reflections. Come visit when you can. It's like the changes from corn and soybean oils to Canola - a rape seed that has been split engineered and has a patent (not cross-pollinated). Our bodies do absolutely nothing with it except clog the arteries. (Canola stands for Canadian Oil Low 'Erucic' Acid). We're an interesting peoples, we are, worried about cow farts, yet, feeding out chidren oils that will give them heart trouble. Great post. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  14. GMOs in food is the single most terrifying thing happening to our food supply, if you ask me (not that you did). I'm not knee-jerk against genetic engineering, and I think it would be crazy to expect humans not to experiment with it once we had the capability, but the total lack of foresight involved with large-scale GMO production absolutely horrifies me. We have no way of knowing what the long-term consequences will be, and if they're not dire, I'll be happily shocked...

  15. Alyssia: Well, as long as you didn't spray the coffee, I suppose it's okay, right?
    And the movie, if it was the Kilmer one, was horrible. I mean really horrible. Go read the book.

    L.G.: I haven't read that. Okay, I haven't even heard of that. Better go look it up.

    Alex: You know, I ran across an article about them working on the tomato thing. They did something to some tomato, and it lost its flavor, so they didn't release it to the market even though they got FDA approval for it. They're, now, trying to fix the flavor issue.

    Rusty: Yeah, even without genetic engineering, they're having issues with the longevity of certain plants due to selected breeding. Specifically, the banana. They expect, because they developed the seeds right out of them, that the banana will be extinct within the next couple of decades unless they can figure out a way to fix it. Not all bananas, but the ones that you find in bulk at the grocery store.

    S.L.: I do think Resident Evil is one of the best examples of genetic engineering run amuck.

    Melodie: The banana is still in the works. It's in the testing phases.
    The glowing cats are probably for the same reason as the glowing fish, meaning a novelty pet. I've also seen pics of some glowing beagles they developed in Japan (I think).

    Michael: I'm not sure what the alternative is?

    Donna: Well, yeah, but his was a genetic mutation.

    Geojour: Yeah, I sort of think that's the point. I imagine it won't be all that long before everyone wears spider silk.

    Shannon: Well, yeah, but not to everyone. In fact, possibly not really to most people. I mean, if it was possible to choose to make your child brilliant would you refuse? Or make your child an incredible athlete? Or obedient? Completely obedient children. What do you think the government could do with that?

    Sarah P: Yeah, it does. All at once, almost.

    SharleneT: We do lots of contradictory things. The left hand and the right never agree.

    Jericha: Well, humans have an amazing capacity for a lack of foresight. It's... disturbing.

  16. Also, if you haven't seen it, there's a pretty cool instance of genetic engineering in the tv show Dark Angel. The show started out great, and then sucked, but had a really great premise.

  17. S.L.: I did see some of Dark Angel. Couldn't stay with it, though. It was an interesting premise.