Scientists just can’t leave animals well enough alone. In some cases, it’s for our benefit, whether we want to create new medicine, create better drug-sniffing dogs, or just breed giant delicious salmon. But sometimes it’s for the animals themselves, shown with groundbreaking prostheses or embedded GPS to protect endangered animals from poachers. Check out our gallery of twelve of the craziest ways scientists are messing with animals.
Click to launch our tour of science-customized animals
Whether these are good or bad for us, ethically, morally, environmentally…well, those are arguments that won’t stop raging anytime soon. (See the truckload of legislation attempting to variously ban or promote genetically modified animals for food, if you want an exhausting amount of examples.) One thing, at least, is beyond arguing: Those cloned drug-sniffer puppies are super cute, right guys?
Enlarged, Hyperoxic Dragonflies
A recent Arizona State University study, presented at the Geological Society of America’s 2010 conference, found that dragonflies reared in a hyperoxic environment (one with a higher-than-average concentration of oxygen) grew significantly larger. Much to our disappointment, we’re not talking about eagle-sized dragonflies here, but a growth of around 15% is still a pretty interesting discovery. The study was constructed to provide more insight into the effects a hyperoxic environment–like the kind our planet enjoyed in the late Paleozoic–might have had on animal gigantism. It is true, after all, that most of the most badass megafauna, including the Terror Bird and elephant-sized Giant Ground Sloth, are no longer around to scare the crap out of us, and this study indicates that part of the reason may be the decreased amount of oxygen in the air. The growth does seem to vary by species, however, since cockroaches exhibited no notable growth in the hyperoxic environment. Still, the fact remains that a simple change in oxygen levels produced naturally giant dragonflies–too bad we can’t release them into the wild to take care of those deadly mosquitoes.
Ruppy, the Glowing Transgenic Puppy
Glowing, transgenic lab animals seems to be a fad these days. A quick list of the veritable animal kingdom that has been implanted with glowing jellyfish DNA includes pigs, mice, rhesus monkeys, voles, naked mole rats, and marmosets. But Ruppy the Glowing Puppy, a cloned beagle that glows red under UV light, has gotten the lion’s share of attention, largely because he’s adorable. Scientists are experimenting with transgenics to see how genes are passed down from parent to child. The jellyfish DNA that makes these puppies glow was chosen (supposedly) not for its cool futuristic Tron aesthetic but because it’s incredibly easy to see if the splicing worked. All the scientists have to do is shine a quick UV light on the animal and bam, they get a quick yes or no. So far, it hasn’t worked all that well, but transgenics researchers are confident that this line of work will eventually help them learn more about how diseases are passed to a new generation.
The weirdness/awesomeness of transgenics don’t stop at glowing beagles–they extend as far as the delightfully named spider-goat. The spider-goat is not, thankfully, a goat-sized spider with huge nightmare pincers, but is actually a goat in most respects–except its milk. A goat whose DNA has been altered to include some spider DNA provides a very curious milk that can be purified, dried, and spun into very spider-like silk. That’s both uncomfortably weird and incredibly useful. Spider silk, after all, is a fascinating substance–famously strong, light, and already spun. But spiders do not take well to farming, and as they are (thank god) mostly teeny little creatures, they don’t produce enough silk to be useful in large-scale production. These transgenic goats, created by Randy Lewis at the University of Wyoming, produce about a half ounce of silk from every quart of milk–the equivalent of a hundred spiders. So do not fear the spider-goat! Love it, for it may some day be responsible for your un-tearable sweater, your artificial tendon, or your unbreakable parachute cord!
Back in 2010, Oscar (pictured) became the first kitty to get prosthetic legs attached directly to his anklebones. The technology—called intraosseous transcutaneous amputation prosthetics, or ITAP—mimics the porousness of deer antlers to fuse flesh and metal together in a tight seal that keeps out dirt and bacteria. ITAP has since been tested in humans, who say the implanted prosthetic legs are much more comfortable than the detachable kind.
Magnets Throw Off a Croc’s Sense of Direction
Sometimes science doesn’t take place in a sterile lab, with beakers and pipettes and clipboards and test tubes, but out in nature, with lots of electrical tape and one very angry crocodile. South Floridians, you see, have problems not just with the more common (on these shores, anyway) alligator, but also with crocodiles. There’s a population of around 2,000 crocodiles in South Florida, few enough that it seems inappropriate to just shoot them outright when they crawl out of the canals and into your grandma’s retirement community, so Floridian biologists have worked out a non-lethal method to make sure they stay away from people’s lawns. Crocodiles have an acute sense of direction, and even if they’re captured and moved far away, they have an instinct to use that sense to get back to where they were. Their directional savvy is the result of an internal magnetic navigation system, and therein lies the flaw: We know how to mess with magnets! Floridian biologists have lately been experimenting with the distinctly lo-fi method of disrupting the crocs’ navigational sense: They tape magnets to a croc’s head with electrical tape before moving it far away, and then remove the magnets once it’s released into a more suitable (read: fewer grandmas) habitat. The magnets apparently are effective in disrupting the croc’s sense of direction, and the croc will typically not be able to return to wherever it was causing such a ruckus. Who knew that crocodiles worked pretty much like cassette tapes?
GPS-Implanted Rhino Horns
GPS chips have been used to track animals for years, especially wide-ranging ones like marine animals. But GPS-tagging an animal gets a lot cooler when that animal’s face looks exactly like an antenna already. Rhinos in the Mafikeng Game Reserve in South Africa are very much at risk–200 have already been killed this year by poachers after their horns, prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Rangers at the Mafikeng Game Reserve have taken it upon themselves to start tracking their animals more closely by, coincidentally, using the exact target of the poachers’ desire. They drill a small hole in the dead part of the rhino’s horn (the horns are made of keratin, and don’t have nerves, so drilling causes them no pain–just like clipping your fingernails) and insert a small GPS unit inside. The GPS unit is pretty sophisticated, really, allowing for different kinds of alarms to be sent. If the rhino is motionless for an abnormally long time, if it leaves the reserve, or if it begins running, the park rangers receive an alert and a location and can track down the animal very quickly to make sure it’s okay.
Got a Great Dog? Clone It
Drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs are tremendously valuable. A lengthy and expensive study by the U.S. Department of Defense recently concluded that the dog reigns supreme as the world’s best bomb detector, an accolade shared by drug-sniffing dogs. But true sniffer dogs are rare–only about 30% of pre-bred sniffer dogs pass the stringent tests required to be a professional drug-sniffing dog. So why not just take a great sniffer dog and clone it instead? That’s exactly what a group of South Korean scientists did, and it seems to be paying off. A “star drug-sniffing Canadian labrador retriever” was cloned, resulting in a seven-puppy litter, six of which are now serving as drug-sniffing dogs across South Korea. (They’re all named Toppy, a portmanteau of “tomorrow” and “puppy.”) Airport security reports that they take to the training much more quickly than bred, rather than cloned, sniffer dogs, and as a bonus, they are all (exactly equally) adorable.
Mouse Milk, for Humans
Synthetic baby formula, though totally effective, does nonetheless lack some of the proteins and other organic properties of actual breast milk. Some of those proteins have been linked to improved immune systems in babies, so it’s always worth messing around to try to improve baby formula–although mouse milk may not be the first thing that comes to mind. A team of Russian scientists is experimenting with splicing certain human genes into mice, with the aim of getting the mice to produce milk containing lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is a naturally occurring protein in humans that provides babies with bacterial and fungal protection, and it’s distinctly lacking in artificial formula. You might ask what the point of creating fantastic milking mice is, a totally reasonable question. Mice in this case are the first line of experimentation–the scientists hope to then expand the research out into other animals that can produce milk in bulk, like goats and cows.
Beef Cattle That Feel No Pain
Among the myriad problems with beef cattle, especially inside the factory farming system, is the pain and suffering the animals are forced to endure before (and during, I suppose) slaughter. There are lots of proposals to make that easier, from grass-fed pasture cattle systems to a reduced volume of cattle, but one of the weirder ones comes from a paper in the journal Neuroethics. The paper makes an argument for a genetic modification that would remove or at least dramatically dim the ability of beef cattle to feel pain. It’s conceivably possible–there have been instances of human children with a certain deactivated gene that left them with the inability to feel pain. In people, it’s a very undesirable trait, pain being the body’s warning system and all, but in cattle due for slaughter, it could be viewed instead as humane. It’s not clear if regulatory agencies like the U.S.’s FDA would approve this kind of modification. Any kind of genetically modified meat, be it cloned or otherwise, is a difficult sell these days, but perhaps they’d make an exception for pain-free beef.
AquAdvantage, the Giant Salmon
Ah, the last and most likely to be seen on your bagel, cedar plank, or sashimi platter sometime soon: the AquAdvantage salmon. AquAdvantage salmon is a transgenic blend of three fish: It’s mostly an Atlantic salmon, but has been modified to include a gene from a Chinook salmon that itself has been modified to include the gene of an ocean pout, an ugly-looking eel-like fish found off the coast of New England. It’s sort of like a transgenic turducken. The combination of Chinook and ocean pout genes allow the AquAdvantage salmon to produce growth hormone all year round, so it grows incredibly quickly. That picture above? That’s an AquAdvantage salmon compared to a normal Atlantic salmon of the same age. The company claims the modified fish is environmentally safe and sustainable–the fish are all sterile, so we don’t have to worry about them breeding with the native populations, which is a major concern for aquaculture of genetically modified fish. AquAdvantage salmon were deemed safe by the FDA, calling them nutritionally equal to non-GM salmon and capable of being sustainably farmed. But there are lots of dissenters–many groups, including the consumer advocacy group behind Consumer Reports, claim the FDA report is not transparent enough and relies on too little data. Many elected representatives have demanded that GM salmon be prominently identified as such, or, in more extreme cases, simply be banned. The fate of AquAdvantage is still unclear, with the two sides pushing back at each other.
Remote-Controlled Cyborg Beetle
Here’s where we get into some truly science-fiction stuff: A cyborg beetle, built with parts you can get at any Radio Shack, that’s controlled remotely. This beetle was created as a DARPA-funded project conducted by University of California, Berkeley researchers, and published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, and it’s just as crazy as you’d think. A computer chip was attached to the brain of a giant beetle, so chosen for its bulk and ability to fly with a heavy load. Thanks to this chip and its array of sensors, a researcher was able to control it, using a laptop to cause it to fly around the room. This development could be useful for military purposes, which is why DARPA got involved in the first place. Imagine organic UAVs, almost completely undetectable thanks to looking like (being, actually) an ordinary beetle. Scary/cool!
Robotic Limbs Controlled by Monkey-Thought
Here’s one that work work equally well as fodder for the “robots are going to kill us all” and “robots are going to save us all” camps: a robotic limb controlled by the thoughts of a monkey. Maybe there’s even a third camp, a usually quiet camp, convinced it’ll be monkeys that kill us all. This story takes all comers, really. A series of experiments lead by Dr. Andrew Schwartz at the University of Pittsburgh have created a robotic limb that can be controlled by a monkey’s thoughts, after that monkey has been implanted with a chip. They restrained the monkey and managed to get it to use its thoughts to manipulate a robotic arm enough to feed itself. The technique relies on two chip implants, one in the brain (monitoring motor commands) and one in the hand for more control. This newer work shows off some pretty amazing control, far more than just a simple gripper. It also responds to shoulder, elbow, and advanced wrist movements (including pitch, roll, and yaw), more than ever before. The practical uses for this are obvious: amazing new prostheses that can be controlled in an almost-natural fashion.