Eduardo Kac is building "GFP K-9," a glow-in-the-dark dog. He expects it to have a "literally colorful personality." Don't laugh; in 2000, Kac built a glow-in-the-dark rabbit, Alba, in Jouy-en-Josas, France. Working with a French biotech firm, he created the rabbit by imbedding green fluorescent protein (a bioluminescent substance from a Pacific Northwest jellyfish) in the DNA of an albino rabbit. Kac is a Ph.D. research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts (CAiiA) at the University of Wales and an Associate Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has sent shudders through both animal lovers and bioengineers alike. Asking why he did this is probably asking the wrong question. Kac, it turns out, is only using current technology to do something that mankind has been at for at least two thousand years, if not a hundred thousand. He's using biological beings as a means of self-expression. Let's go back a while to examine this historical phenomena.
Domestication and the Dog
Dogs came to us in prehistory as small, shy scavengers. This was well before domestication of the "big five" herbivores -- cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats, and long before agriculture. With the possible exception of the horse, our relationship with dogs is unique. They have been true working partners, not food stocks. Even horses started as food stock before becoming our first high-speed transit system. This canine partnership, combined with the unique characteristics of the dog, probably explains our profound feelings toward them.
The business of these very early dogs was scavenging, bringing them only partially into our camps. However, mankind has never been able to leave well enough alone. Early on we started simple culling for traits we recognized as useful. As man had early successes and built specialized canine functions, the non-random selective breeding we use today evolved. Interestingly, much of the evidence has suggested that this was going on around the time of our shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural producers.
Based on archaeological evidence -- bits of canine bones found cohabiting human camp sites -- it has generally been believed that this adoption process began somewhere between 10,000-20,000 years ago. There's debate in the scientific community about what drove this cohabitation. One camp believes that humans adopted wolf pups and rather understandably selected the less aggressive, friendlier offspring. The other camp is convinced that dogs themselves drove the process by becoming our four-footed garbage removers. 10,000 years ago, scavenging around the increasingly successful human hunters would have had a clear evolutionary advantage, namely easy pickings. It seems reasonable that humans would have killed off overly aggressive dogs while ignoring those who more comfortably coexisted in or around human encampments. Such unconscious culling would have selected for personality traits in the local canid population that would have been compatible with coexisting with another species and, over time, beneficial to the human population. Thus we began the long journey to today.
By 4500 BC, there were five distinct types of working dogs: sight hounds, pointing dogs, mastiffs, herding dogs and, oddly, the original wolf types. Then, as now, specialization arose to fill human needs. Early on, when hunting still dominated as a means of food production, both pointing dogs and sight hounds would have been prized variants. With their keen senses (dogs have upwards of twenty times our olfactory receptors) and rugged staying power for long chases, they made key contributions to the hunt. The different hunting breeds had their specialties: sight hounds pursued prey to kill, pointers found and stood game without immediate attack. Both would have been useful to early small-game hunters, depending on the local ecosystem. The hound lineage produced the fastest of dogs and consequently became our sleek dog racing champions. It is curious that wolf types continued to be part of the dog breed landscape for some time. Whether they were kept for their coordinated pack hunting instincts or their ability to deal with large prey is unknown.
As humans became more settled and agriculturally oriented, other characteristics became valued. Protection of an encampment gave rise to the mastiff breeds -- large yet docile animals, with great strength, powerful necks and jaws, and a limited need for speed or tracking ability. Later, they would become sporting dogs for bull-baiting and dog fighting. A greater challenge was the conversion of the canid's carnivorous instincts into protecting domesticated animals. Perhaps tracking and stalking skills were co-opted into the herding types' genome. This is an amazing conversion of natural instinct, as killing and eating easy prey such as sheep and cattle would be any wolf's first reaction.
Then, as now, it took generations of dogs and people to create new breeds. But without working knowledge of the science of genetics, these breeds were created in an amazingly few thousand years, almost nothing in evolutionary terms.
Looking for Old Dogs
It turns out that developing those new dogs may have taken a lot more time than we previously thought. Using the tools of modern molecular biology, Robert K. Wayne of UCLA has found evidence that dogs may have been domesticated earlier, as early as 100,000 years ago, close to the dawn of our own species.
Molecular biologists traced the complex ancestry of the 400-plus modern dog breeds and related canine species. Mitochondrial DNA, unlike chromosomal DNA, mutates at a fairly rapid and predictable rate. By looking at the degree of divergence in the DNA of various canine breeds and near relatives, molecular biologists were stunned. The degree of divergence they discovered couldn't have occurred had dogs evolved from wolves in only the last ten to twenty thousand years, as previously thought. Ironically, the same science that uncovered our extraordinary long relationship with dogs is also contributing to a new rapidity and range of future divergence.
Making a New Science
In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen used enzymes to cut a bacteria plasmid and insert a strand of DNA in the gap. This milestone technique, recombinant DNA, allows for direct modification of animal characteristics and creates the ultimate paintbrush for animal breeding, transspecies genetic trait transfer. Until now, it has taken generations of dogs and people to develop a truly new breed, and moving traits directly from one species to another was impossible. Now, bioengineering technology allows us to supersede traditional breeding techniques and create previously unrealizable innovations. This includes mixing traits of totally dissimilar organisms. It is now possible to manipulate an animal's physical appearance and behavior using these recombinant DNA techniques, AKA genetic engineering. Bioengineering should also allow scientists to attack ancient genetic problems such as large dog hip dysphasia or hemophilia. Cures that once would have taken generations may now be possible in a few years. New breeds may now, by definition, take one dog generation to create. Once these principles were established, the process has grown increasingly easy. How easy?
A group of students from Eagle Crest High School in Aurora, Colorado built an E.Coli bacteria with the same glow-in-the-dark gene Kac used. Unlike Kac, they did it themselves, with $150 worth of materials that they bought through mail order. To understand what this increasingly easy technology might mean for the future requires another trip into the past.
Old New Kinds of Dog
Mesolithic archeological sites in Denmark yielded surprisingly small dogs; similar dogs have been found at Swiss lake dwellings, apparently house dogs. These weren't mastiffs protecting the hearth or hounds for chasing game, these were a new type of animal: the companion dog. Later, in the first century AD, the Chinese would separately develop their own types. Unlike robust field hunters, these "lapdogs" were bred for small size and unusual looks. Described as "short-legged and short-headed dogs whose place was under the table," they were the aesthetic forerunners of today's Pekinese and pug. Greeks and Romans kept such companion dogs, as did prosperous Europeans and Toltecs. In many royal courts, they were considered so important that they were assigned their own human servants. Then, as now, they were highly prized, pampered house pets, at one time carried along the trade routes as gifts of high esteem for emperors and kings.
Dogs became the subjects of affection and expression in many cultures. In Europe, the merchant classes were great enthusiasts, making these dogs fashion accessories and including them in family portraits. If there was a utility in these dogs, it was filling the need for self-expression. That must have been important because the breeds flourished. In Europe, ladies of the court described them as 'comforters' and early Church documents show that it was common for the parishioners to bring their dogs to services for foot warmers. Clearly, this was something new, an animal whose sole purpose was as an "ego adjunct."
Not only did these new breeds become very popular, but older working breeds increasingly became companionship-only animals. Today, most registered breeds have their origins in some variation of a utility breed (140 out of 155, by my count), yet surveys suggest that 94% of owners say their dog's primary benefit is companionship. Certainly today's average dog is "non-working." In fact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has published a position paper supporting the animals as companions; it cites their "enormous value to human health and well-being." The role of dogs has evolved, and most dogs have become decorative and companion animals. The American Kennel Club (AKC) judges a dog's "quality" almost exclusively by its appearance.
Decorating the Dog
Breeding for appearance, rather than utility, swept away accepted approaches to new breed development with style becoming king. Only time and cost constrained these creations. To get around those seemingly unbreakable limits, decoration became the fast track to high style. In the time of Louis XV of France, businesses providing the latest fashion in dog haircuts, perms, and colorizing flourished. Dog collars became a measure of importance, with some made of gold, silver, white leather, or velvet. The trend continues today, of course, with once utilitarian leashes morphed into $38 Coach collars and $800 Louis Vuitton carrying cases. One shudders to think of how much is spent on dog haircuts alone.
Beyond surface decoration came decorative surgery. Early and still common modifications include ear and tail docking. Tail docking is routine for 56 of the 155 AKC-recognized breeds. Dog conformation enthusiasts continue to rationalize that a docked tail provides a handle to pull terriers and other breeds out of burrows. One wonders who would pull a Doberman out by its docked tail?
Decorative surgery or time consuming breeding aside, we continue to be driven to decorate our dogs. Stylish inbreeding has created bulldogs who struggle to breathe through short noses, shar-peis suffer with eczema of folded skin, and Boston terriers with large protruding eyes prone to degeneration. We care about our dogs' health -- Americans spend over $7 billion a year on veterinarians. However, good health continues to be subsidiary to fashion. Pierre Barnoti, Executive Director of the Canadian SPCA, points out that there are over three hundred known genetic defects in dogs that we have not bothered to repair. In his lectures to Quebec school children (and their teachers), he points out that their province, unlike 13th century Europe, has no animal welfare laws. This has lead to its becoming, in his words, the "capital of cruelty" for animal breeders wanting to avoid US and Canadian laws yet fill the American need for stylish pets. The "Olympics of conformation" dominate dog shows. As mentioned, the AKC defines most of its 155 official breeds predominantly by their appearance.* However, the time in which we can create new canine fashions is about to drop from generations to months.
New bioengineering techniques can significantly enhance an animal's existing traits, yielding super-size salmon, parasite-resistant cattle, blue roses and, in the case of AviGenics Corporation, an "avian transgenesis and cloning technology" company, muscle-bound super-chickens. But that's just the beginning.
A privately funded "Missyplicity Project" is underway at Texas A&M University. It is attempting to clone the favorite mongrel dog of a wealthy Silicon Valley couple. The team, sensing a market opportunity, has rolled out a lower-cost service for the less affluent. It provides storage, not cloning, of your pet's DNA using the same state-of-the-art technology as the Missyplicity Project. Presumably, it will allow you to reconstitute the animal later when cloning becomes cheap and easy. They call this side business "Genetic Savings & Clone."
As noted, traits can be transferred between species and then can be reproduced en masse via cloning. Long experience with dog breeding has shown that genetic manipulation can modify animal behavior. Soon any developmental limits will be statutory, not technical. While behavioral training can create a single "bad" dog, genetic manipulation can create a species of "bad" dogs. That is a huge difference in scale and potential impact. On top of this, breeding took years of effort; however, with the advances of bioengineering, even an amateur may be able to make a batch of "bad" dogs in a few weeks. New sciences will lower the bar on not only how fast it can be done but who can do it.
Additionally, animal breeders will have significant financial incentives to follow this path. Unlike crossbreeding, new genetic combinations can be patented. Transgenetic techniques may cure genetic diseases such as hemophilia and hip dysplasia, but the big money will be in creating new kinds of creatures. Many researchers comment on dogs' extraordinary genetic plasticity, possibly due to their high chromosome count (78 to our 46). This, along with our predisposition to manipulate this species, will keep dogs in the forefront of genetic innovation.
Following the lead of the successful Human Genome Project is the Dog Genome Mapping Project. A collaboration of scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Oregon, and the Hutchinson Cancer Center are working to locate "the genes causing disease and those controlling morphology and behavior." Morphology is the branch of biology dealing with form and structure. Eliminating selective breeding handicaps will open whole new directions only our science fiction has explored.
New Kinds of New Dogs
A starting place for genetic enhancement will likely be the expansion of existing canine features and traits. This would exploit the limits of dogs' current physical characteristics. Toy dogs are among the leaders in today's companion dog role, and are hot sellers. Chihuahuas and poodles are small, but imagine them reduced to the size of a mouse, from five pounds down to less than an ounce. With roughly a hundred fold reduction in size, the bones of these micro-dogs would be extraordinarily fragile. But novelty and portability will create a market for these tiny creatures.
Speed has always fascinating to the American public. Every year millions are wagered on greyhound races. Today's greyhound can reach forty-five miles per hour on the track. Add a bit more muscle and lung capacity, and the result could be a dog with the speed of a cheetah, say around seventy miles per hour. Bone breakage, again, would have to be solved, but with the money at stake in the dog racing business, someone will try.
Back to the issue of size. Great Danes now top out at 160 pounds. In breeding and owning circles alike, the larger ones are highly prized. To fulfill this need for extreme size, a 'Super Dane' is easy to imagine. At twice its normal size, such a 'Super Dane' would weigh in close to a lion. With manipulation of behavioral traits such as aggressiveness through genetic engineering, the phrase "guard dog" could take on a whole new meaning.
Eco-Patches and Beyond
It is imaginable that dogs could be developed to fill holes in local eco-systems. One possible use would be in environments where non-native animals have been introduced, such as rabbits in Australia or carp in the United States. Specialized dogs with enhanced predatory skills (fins?) could solve these long-standing eco-problems. One can easily imagine dogs engineered to replace people in certain high-risk positions, such as military tunnel rats, search-and-rescue teams, or bomb squads. We've tried using dolphins to place underwater mines, so why not dogs? Beyond that, it's possible that a genetically altered dog might also supplement or replace expensive electronic equipment in certain applications, say in a nuclear reactor. Highly mobile animals with the ability to see or hear into ultra-high frequencies could provide early warning of high radiation levels. After all, we used canaries in mining operations for years. The ethics of putting such animals at risk are just being debated.
Beyond enhancement there is the strange world of transspecies modification. Imagine Border collies with wool instead of hair, or Labradors with true webbed feet, or winged whippets that may or may not be capable of flight. Functionality doesn't drive the market; style does. Opportunities will be everywhere. Color matching to this fall's styles, your school's colors, or favorite hue is achievable. It's not hard to imagine both human and canines on the runways of Paris. A reporter on the Kac K-9 story suggested creating dogs that glow when petted, sort of visual purring.
As a side issue, a challenge for newly transformed dogs will be the lack of "equipment knowledge." That is, they will have no instinctual understanding of how to use features we may choose to give them. Teaching newly enhanced transgenetic creatures how to survive their unique capabilities may be a major challenge.
Business and Law
Being able to patent biological creations will encourage most large-scale commercial breeders to produce their own modifications. However, the increasingly easy methods of genetic engineering will allow individuals to construct things Dr. Moreau would recognize. A flood of highly innovative but tragically dysfunctional creatures could result. Disturbingly, gene transfers between animals and plants are possible; it's conceivable that we could create macabre animals that bear fruit or have flowers for our amusement. At least among animals transferred traits are variations on existing themes such as size or strength. Plants differ so much (think about bark) that such transfers could drive a creature, with no possibility of instinctively understanding its new traits, to a sort of animal insanity.
As bioengineering technology become easier, the mentality that created "puppy mills" seems ripe to exploit this new science. Our society has had little success curbing the abuses of these high volume dog manufacturers. New biologically-based puppy mills have the potential to create even greater horrors.
Currently, there are no laws against the creation of transgenetic animals. The FDA has laid claim to the legal authority to regulate products derived from transgenetic animals. They are fully engaged with the safety of foods with transgenetic components, the potential impact of these products and their production processes on the environment, and the safety of test animals. The last of these focuses on administering drugs, not the viability of resultant animals. There is very little debate on the question of our ethical right to create these new dogs, perhaps because of our long history of manipulating their genes.
The Ethical Debate
There are debates going on inside and outside the scientific community concerning bioengineering. The discussions center on human consumption of bioengineered plants and animals, as well as the safety of the ecosystem. Organizations' ranging from the 'Artists for Responsible Genetics' to the 'Natural Law Party' have sprung up, demanding labeling and, in some cases, bans on the whole science. There is not much discussion about the welfare of the animals except for those used in scientific development and testing.
The broader potential of genetic engineering is now just being considered by most animal advocacy groups. The National Humane Education Society, an animal advocacy group headquartered in Leesburg, Virgina, has taken a position opposing such work, but only within a narrow framework, food development. Believing that it is "inherently cruel to alter an animal's genes to produce healthier food for humans when these genetic engineering attempts do, in fact, subject animals to pain and suffering," they are responding the food industry's highly visible recent press. However, they do not speak to the broader potential for genetic manipulation that seems to be brewing in the future.
We have engaged in the genetic manipulation of animals and plants through most of our history. Much of this has been done for "good" purposes such as food production. Today even that purpose is being challenged, due to concerns for possible effects on the ecosystem. A new and more profound problem has arrived with the approach of a time when anybody will be able to develop something new very quickly and with very personal goals.
Can controls limit the harm to animals during an invention process? Should there be requirements for the ongoing welfare of animals that don't "work out"? Today, breeders often arrange adoption for less than perfect results. Significant deformities may make transgenetic failures unadoptable. Animals with negative social attributes, perhaps bred exclusively to kill, are just as easy to make as any other. Is this exploitation a form of abuse? Is it ethical? Should it be illegal? Some European countries have laws against cosmetic surgery for animals. On the other hand, history suggests we generally feel we have a "right" to build such creatures.
One of Eduardo Kac's exhibits, "Genesis," is built on a verse from the Bible: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." The meaning of our dominion, and perhaps our accountability, is changing. With mankind's history in the dog/human partnership, it is not clear that we are up to the task.
And what of ourselves? These technologies will eventually be transferable to the human species. The same ease of use and speed of implementation will eventually apply. Then the challenge will be both legal and practical. Constraints and laws now being debated in the press may become moot. Modifications may be so easy to do that law enforcement may be impossible. The complex ethical issues could be resolved by practices of the population not debate. Our dealings with dogs foreshadow how we will form ourselves. It will be an opportunity with no small risk and, again, it is not clear that we will be up to the task.
In spite of centuries of specialized breeding, prized conformations vanish when a pure breeds "return to the wild." Highly developed traits disappear as dogs mongrelize and the sleek, athletic shape of the ancient proto-dog breeds through. You see these dogs wild on the streets of Bombay, Nairobi and Austin. Short hair, ginger colored, they have long, runners' bodies with curved, undocked tails. The wild dogs, the dhole of Asia, the dingo of Australia and the Carolina dog of North America, the singing dog of New Guinea all have the same look. This proto-dog shape returns as sure as if it had been hiding somewhere in a secret genetic basement, held in check only by the constant vigilance of the breeding community, waiting to come home.
Dan Derby is a product designer by training and a writer/consultant by vocation. He's designed and patented hi-tech gear, fixed dysfunctional organizations, and lectured at Stanford University. A southerner by birth, he's lived on both coasts as well as overseas, and is now dug in on a hill in rural New Hampshire where it's warm, snowy, and the people are strong and true. Dan's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.
Links and Further Reading
Abrantes, Roger. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior.
Coppinger, Raymond, and Laura Coppinger. Dogs : A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution.
Scott, John Paul, and John L. Fuller, Eds. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog.