Wasabi Monkeys

There is something unnatural about genetic engineering that alarms most members of the public. Even without a full appreciation of the potential problems that genetic modification could produce, Joe Public doesn’t like the idea of scientist’s playing God. That’s how most people refer to this new field. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong about inserting the genes of one life form into another.

There are indeed potential problems with genetic modification (GM) as one has to be careful not to produce unforeseen mutations that have negative consequences. One of the problems of GM is that it by-passes the longer, winnowing processes of natural selection where diversity emerges within the context of an environment of competing life forms.  It’s the laboratory equivalent of importing cane toads to Australia that have no natural predator and then discovering decades later that your environment is overrun with these reviled amphibians.

However, I don’t think the general public are primarily concerned by the problem of unforeseen consequences but rather people are appalled by the transformation of life forms in principle. There is something very wrong about mixing different life forms or at least that’s how the public view it.

I think that this concern reflects a naïve essentialist belief that species are categorically different from each other. This biological essentialism emerges early in child development and before children have been educated about genes and DNA. Rather, our naïve biological reasoning leads us to draw a distinction between life forms by inferring some deeper mechanism that makes life essentially different from each other.

Marmoset_385x185_563858aThis week we learn that Japanese scientists have bred GM monkeys with feet that glow fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. This is because they have had the green fluorescent protein (GFP) marker gene inserted. Why might you ask do we need transgenic marmosets with feet that glow fluorescent green in the first place? The answer is that GFP can be used as a marker to track the effects of genetic manipulation. Last year’s Nobel prize was given to the scientist who discovered and developed the GFP marker technique. 

I would imagine that most of the general public would probably have no particularly concern about this study as the research seems so academic. However, I bet there would be more public outcry if they knew that the GFP was originally isolated from a jellyfish.  This jellyfish gene has been successfully used with many different plants and animals but the marmoset study is the first time that primates have produced offspring that carry the GM trait allowing a colony of transgenic animals to be produced.

The idea of plants and primates having jellyfish genes seems so unnatural but then that simply reflects our misunderstanding of what genes are. Our naïve biological essentialism simply does not easily allow for the concept that all life forms share a common set of genes. Humans may share around 98.5% of their genetic make-up with our closest cousin the chimpanzee but we also share around 50% with a banana. That just doesn’t seem right.

Maybe the mother of one of the twin marmosets agreed as she bit it to death. Or maybe the Japanese mother marmoset mistook the glowing green feet for wasabi.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

11 responses to “Wasabi Monkeys

  1. Arno

    I don’t know. From comments that I read, there is some more to it. Though it is definitely true that some people claim it is ‘unnatural’, this is a small minority. Most seem more concerned that this is animal abuse. And this is always in cases where people are informed it is due to a jellyfish gene. And when I ask these people how glowing feet under a condition that would never occur naturally in the wild, and therefore would not in any way threaten the survivability of the monkey can be defined as animal abuse, I get responses like “How about I stuff such a gene inside you?!”

    In my opinion, this just demonstrates that people do not have a freaking clue what is actually done. And usually, when I explain that these gene manipulations are usually done with the monkey in its single cell state, the responses very quickly die down.

    So there are some essentialist responses, but most just seem simple souls who haven’t had a biology class for the last 10 years.

  2. Arno

    And damn, them evil genetic manipulators is on a roll this week! Mice with human language genes? Omgoose?

  3. Oy, and I just got into a discussion? argument? with someone over the benefits of nonhuman animal research, of which I think there are many and she thinks it ought to be stopped entirely, or at the very least that nothing should be done to nonhumans that we wouldn’t do to humans. Some people really have no idea what animal research is about, or how thankful they ought to be that nonhuman animals *are* used in research. No idea.

  4. Bruce, did the mother really kill one of the babies? Is this normal behavior in marmosets, if so?

  5. brucehood

    Yes, apparently one of the twins died from a bite from the mother. I would think it is not a normal behavior. The only thing I could offer is that some mothers will reject an offspring if they are separately early. For example, I believe goats will attack their own offspring is separated early on. Possibly, the researchers who were keen to monitor the offspring may have transgressed this biological imperative.

  6. My first reaction is entirely unscientific.
    OMG they are so cute AND I really want to glow in black light, that would be totally wicked at a nightclub.

    My second reaction stems from the fact that my father is diabetic, I am epileptic, and who knows where the next medical miracle is going to come from?

    I am an animal rights advocate, but I don’t believe those rights should supersede human rights to develop science and medicine. I do believe that humans should avoid testing that causes pain and discomfort to creatures who can experience those things, so I believe science and animal rights should be balanced, and an ethical approach should be taken to testing.

    I am opposed to engaging in testing for cosmetic purposes, as I think having shiny lipgloss that makes your boyfriend think about oral sex 57% more often than other lipgloss is a ridiculous reason to expose an animal to testing.

    People do get weirded out by the genetic manipulation aspect don’t they? It’s strange to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up a geek, and thrived on comic book superheros and such. I would love to have cheetah speed, and owl vision, etc.

  7. Nick Riddle

    Hi Bruce – speaking of belief and matters genetic, I’ve been meaning to forward you this link to an episode of the fantastic This American Life radio show. Beloved bull dies: new bull cloned from old one: owner convinced it’s the reincarnation of the original. Even after it rips off the greater part of his testicles.


  8. brucehood

    Classic Nick… do you mind if I blog it?

  9. I would pay good money to have feet that glowed in the dark. Just think of all of the ways that I could save myself from tripping over things, and running into things. It would be like wearing those children’s shoes that light up with every step, only on my own feet.

    And what’s wrong with using jellyfish genes? As someone who used to swim in the Chesapeake Bay regularly, I can tell you that using jellyfish to make glowing feet is much better than having jellyfish stuck to your legs.

    Don’t even get me started on animal testing for medical benefits. Animal testing for better mascara? Hell no. Animal testing to find new ways of treating tumors, cancer, diabetes? Absolutely.

    And I know from working at a medical school that the people who do these tests do not derive any type of happiness from having to use animals, but there is such a thing as the better good.

    And yes, I am the first one to cry at animal abuse.

  10. Tessa

    A lot of the opponents, including various religious leaders, were banging on about Frankenstein experiments. Wrong mad doctor. They should have said Dr Moreau.

    If you’re going to use horror film scare tactics, at least get the right evil genius.

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