Green Monkeys and Chattering Mice

Stephen DeAngelis

June 12, 2009

Occasionally I read stories that are outside my normal range of topics but that are so interesting I feel compelled to write about them. There is an old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” and that’s sort of where I put these stories. The first story is about genetically modified monkeys that can pass their new genetic attributes (in this case, the ability to glow green under ultraviolet light) to their offspring [“Glowing Green Monkeys Illustrate Important but Controversial Advance,” by Rob Stein, Washington Post, 28 May 2009]. Why, you ask, would anybody want to make monkeys glow green? The answer, it turns out, is that they “give researchers new tools for studying human disease.” Stein notes, however, that such genetic modifications raise ethical questions and stir controversy. Stein describes the experiment with monkeys.

“Japanese researchers added genes that caused the animals to glow green under an ultraviolet light — and beget offspring with the same spooky trait — to test a technique they hope to use to produce animals with Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other diseases. The work, described in today’s issue of the journal Nature, was hailed by some medical researchers as a long-sought milestone that could lead to crucial insights into many ailments and provide invaluable ways to test new treatments. But because the work marks the first time members of a species so closely related to humans have had their genetic makeup permanently altered, the research set off alarms that it marked a troubling step toward applying such techniques to people, which would violate a long-standing taboo. … In humans, researchers have tried to correct genetic defects in individual patients, but there has always been a strict prohibition against making changes that would be passed on.”

Proponents fear that such experiments are the first step towards creating designer babies.

“‘It’s hard to put your finger on what is it about this research that is likely to stimulate ethical debate besides the sort of gut feeling that this is not the right thing to do,’ said Mark A. Rothstein, a bioethicist at the University of Louisville. ‘But I think we’d better contemplate where this research is going and develop policies to deal with it before it slaps us in the face.'”

Rothstein is probably correct that policies need to be generated for dealing with questionable research practices, but policy will always run a distant second to scientific advances. Few, if any, politicians have the foresight to anticipate what science will come up with next. That means the best we are probably going to do is say, “That doesn’t sound like a very good idea.” At that point, governments will probably debate the matter before springing into action. I’ll leave it for others to determine whether glow in the dark monkeys fit that category. Stein makes it clear that animal rights advocates have no doubts that it’s a bad idea. The second story, about chattering mice, seems even more far-fetched [“A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks,” by Nicholas Wade, New York Times, 28 May 2009]. It sounds like a story right out of the “Secret of NIMH.” Wade writes:

“People have a deep desire to communicate with animals, as is evident from the way they converse with their dogs, enjoy myths about talking animals or devote lifetimes to teaching chimpanzees how to speak. A delicate, if tiny, step has now been taken toward the real thing: the creation of a mouse with a human gene for language. The gene, FOXP2, was identified in 1998 as the cause of a subtle speech defect in a large London family, half of whose members have difficulties with articulation and grammar. All those affected inherited a disrupted version of the gene from one parent. FOXP2 quickly attracted the attention of evolutionary biologists because other animals also possess the gene, and the human version differs significantly in its DNA sequence from those of mice and chimpanzees, just as might be expected for a gene sculpted by natural selection to play an important role in language. … Svante Paabo, in whose laboratory [at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig] the mouse was engineered, promised several years ago that when the project was completed, “We will speak to the mouse.” He did not promise that the mouse would say anything in reply.”

Pixar’s latest film, “Up,” draws on our desire to speak with animals and makes it a critical part of the movie’s storyline — and, of course, a good device for obtaining laughs. Talking animals have been a staple of animated films (e.g., Dumbo, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, etc,) I’m sure that Dr. Paabo didn’t begin his experiments for laughs, but novelist and screenwriter Mark Leyner sees humor in the research [“Of Mice and Monologues,” New York Times, 3 June 2009]. Leyner writes:

“I am absolutely baffled as to why the announcement of a scientific advance heralding the advent of talking mice has not generated a peep from the chattering classes, particularly since it’s a story about chattering … and chattering mice, to boot. … To me, it’s obvious that the Age of the Garrulous Rodent is at hand. Bear in mind that we’re not talking about sign language or the proverbial monkeys-at-the-keyboard here. We’re talking about a rat that’ll be able to sit down, look you in the eye and talk about the Sotomayor nomination or the Lakers-Magic series. After millenniums of maintaining their evolutionary vow of silence, can you imagine — once the genetic gag has come off — how much these mice will have to say? The din of mouse prattle will deafen the planet. And don’t think this is going to stop with just mice. We all know how uncontainable technological innovation is. If you think I’m just being cynical and churlish about all this, imagine that you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and a dog looks up and says: ‘You didn’t intern at Cleary Gottlieb, did you? Summer of ’97? You look so familiar.’ Do you really want to have to have a conversation with every puggle you encounter? Isn’t it hard enough already to avoid meaningless conversations with people you don’t know? … Most nightmarish to me — and I’m speaking only for myself here — is the prospect of talking insects. … Imagine some mosquito maliciously egging you on. Or imagine that you walk into the kitchen for a midnight snack, turn the light on, and there’s an enormous water bug in the middle of the floor. As you raise your rolled-up magazine for the death blow, the bug looks up at you plaintively and says: ‘Dude, please. I’ve got a family. Let me go. You’ll never see me again. I swear to God.’ O.K., granted, FOXP2 is only one of the so-called ‘language genes,’ many of which remain to be discovered. But it’s obvious to me that we’re already on the slippery slope to animal eloquence.”

I realize that animal mutations are a bit off the innovation track I normally post about, but I couldn’t help thinking about future glow-in-the-dark breeds of talking dogs. I can imagine taking a dog out for a nighttime walk and having it run quickly away into the darkness.

 

“Get back here,” I call. “I can you see you.”

 

“No you can’t,” the dog replies.

 

“Yes, I can you’re glowing.”

 

“Damn those Japanese researchers.”

 

Or maybe, as in the film “Up,” the dog would simply ignore me and run off yelling, “Squirrel, squirrel, squirrel …” Have a great weekend.