Human-Animal Hybrids

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2006

Catching up with the talk about the State of the Union address, I noticed the President’s complaints about “human-animal hybrids” have attracted some commentary. P.Z. Myers pointed out that scientists are working toward producing a model system for Down Syndrome (i.e. a genetically-engineered mouse with human genes), and that this might further understanding of the condition in people—a worthwhile goal. But we should bear in mind that there’s already a real, live human-animal hybrid creature in widespread use today. Its job is to slave away producing a substance that millions of people use routinely. That substance is insulin. Virtually the entire commercial supply these days is produced by genetically modified e-coli bacteria that contain human DNA, live in a fungal substrate and secrete human insulin. I take it that the President isn’t planning to put every Type I Diabetic in America into hypoglycemic shock. I don’t think it would be a popular policy plank.

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Alter Cogitare » Medley 05 in progress
02.04.06 at 5:45 pm
CharityBuzz PoliticsBlog » Human-Animal Hybrids? What On Earth Was That About?
02.06.06 at 7:07 pm
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02.08.06 at 3:28 am

{ 34 comments }

1

Cryptic Ned 02.01.06 at 5:15 pm

E. coli bacteria are used by bioscience companies to produce tens of thousands of human proteins, as well as mouse proteins, rat proteins, and enzymes that were originally discovered in other bacteria or other organisms (laboratory staples like mung bean nuclease, horseradish peroxidase, hen egg lysozyme, calf intestine phosphatase, antarctic shrimp phosphatase). Insulin is just one example. If you need to make large amounts of a particular protein, you stick a little piece of DNA that encodes for it into bacteria, and select for those bacteria that produce your protein. It’s exponentially cheaper and easier than grinding up tons of bull testicles or cadaver pituitaries.

Also, if the bacteria aren’t capable of making the proteins in such a way that they work in human cells (e.g. if the bacteria don’t link the protein to a certain sugar chain), insect cells are often used.

Just about every enzyme in a catalog like this one was produced in E. coli.

Anyway, my real point was that this is really not an example of a “human-animal hybrid”, because bacteria are in no way animals. They’re one-celled organisms which freely take up little pieces of DNA that didn’t originally belong to them. It’s a different and much more complicated thing to remove a gene from an animal and replace it – on both chromosomes – with a gene from a human. But that still isn’t a “human-animal hybrid” either. It’s just an animal which has artificially been given a weird version of some gene.

2

Kieran Healy 02.01.06 at 5:18 pm

Yeah, I know. But the SOTU speech wanted people to think genetic engineering = Manimal, when it’s a bit more complex than that.

3

Cryptic Ned 02.01.06 at 5:29 pm

Some animals, though, have been bred to produce medically important proteins in their milk (here’s a slightly alarmist article on the subject), just like the pesticide-producing tobacco and rice plants that have been used.

And some bioethicists deplore the establishment of pig colonies which contain human MHC molecules instead of pig MHC molecules, designed to reduce the rate of rejection in organ transplants.

4

Cryptic Ned 02.01.06 at 5:35 pm

One more point – outlawing human-bacterial hybrids wouldn’t put every diabetic into hypoglycemic shock. The richest ones would simply go back to getting insulin from ground-up corpse glands.

Biological research, however, would become impossible. Enzymes are, like, useful and stuff.

5

eudoxis 02.01.06 at 5:56 pm

I think we’re confusing our hybrids with transgenics.

6

dipnut 02.01.06 at 6:03 pm

Hypoglycemic?

7

H. e. baber 02.01.06 at 7:29 pm

It would be useful to make some attempt to get an empathetic handle on what some Americans are afraid of when Bush et. al. make noises about human-animal hybrids.

When Louise Brown was in the works–what 30 years ago?–a national church women’s group from one of the relatively liberal mainline denominations passed resolutions approving of voluntary euthanasia but condemning in vitro fertilization. What were they thinking? I think their worry was that children conceived by in vitro methods would be soul-less zombies who they wouldn’t know how to treat. They had the notion that they’d look and act in every respect human but that they wouldn’t know how to deal with them.

I think something similar is going on when people worry about human-animal hybrids. They imagine either individuals who would look like pigs or monkeys but would be psychologically human, who they wouldn’t know how to deal with, or individuals who looked human but were really pigs of monkeys. On top of that, they imagine that the pig or monkey-looking humans would be bred for the purpose of having their organs and vital bodily fluids harvested and that puts them off.

It’s worth getting a handle on what people worry about and making some empathetic, non-patronizing attempt to address their worries.

8

Henry (not the famous one) 02.01.06 at 7:37 pm

Of course he’s not planning to do that. And if it happens as an unintended consequence of his new policy, it would be irresponsible to hold him responsible.

9

Kieran Healy 02.01.06 at 8:09 pm

Maybe the Turducken is the original American chimera.

10

Kieran Healy 02.01.06 at 9:39 pm

Especially once Madden starts eating it.

11

Jim S 02.01.06 at 10:29 pm

A complete ban on all forms of human cloning sounds more like a ban on all embryonic stem cell research to me. And how many of Bush’s defenders have been pointing out for the last 5 years that he only stopped federal funding, not the research? So much for that defense.

12

Dr. Moreau 02.02.06 at 12:59 am

It appears that this halfwit of a president has gotten wind of yet more of the scurrilous rumours spreading around the world about my activities. Well, let him flap his lips some more, I say! I shall be vindicated of his aspersions just as of everyone elses. Not even the president of the United States can dare stand athwart the march of progress.

13

Harald Korneliussen 02.02.06 at 3:06 am

h.e. baber wrote: “I think their worry was that children conceived by in vitro methods would be soul-less zombies who they wouldn’t know how to treat.”
h.e. baber also wrote “It’s worth getting a handle on what people worry about and making some empathetic, non-patronizing attempt to address their worries.”, ironically.

Because that’s a patronizing view of religious people if I ever saw one. People worry about human life being devalued, and that gradually the idea that human life is sacred will be undermined. They don’t worry about soulless zombies, at least not me or anyone I’ve met.

14

rollo 02.02.06 at 3:11 am

The governing conceit is that anywhere no distinct line can be drawn and held there is no line at all.
No line between killing an animal for food and tormenting rhesus macaques with agonizing slow death to perfect some technique or cosmetic.
No line between pigs and e. coli in the long run.
Ultimately no line between right and wrong.
There are no ethics. Anywhere. Anything goes, now.
The alternative would have been a recognition of kinship, the same kind that currently makes the idea of genetically altering human bodies to exist in vats solely to produce cheap medicine grotesque and unthinkable.
The scam is there’s no kinship with the mammalian world. No kinship with anything. At the same time there’s no ethical difference between a chicken and chimpanzee when it comes to “research”.
There are no distinctions anymore, only vague sentimental attachments to illusion. Atavistic mumbo-jumbo and superstition. Old wives’ and fairy tales.
The line between the ocean and the land is undrawable as well, but it’s there.
One thing I personally find nauseatingly weak and puerile is the consistent shielding of these alien practices with images of innocent suffering.
Think of the lives we’ll save! As though life was something being revered.
What’s revered is the gain – short-term myopic greed and the dangled promise of physical immortality won by any means necessary.
It’s the apotheosis of selfishness.

15

Andrew Brown 02.02.06 at 4:34 am

But what does someone _mean_ when they say that “human life is sacred”? It’s not obvious. How many Catholics really believe that a blastocyst is human — and, by “really believe”, I mean that they behave towards it as they would behave towards a nearly newborn baby? How many end-time believers have life insurance? Almost all of them who can afford it.

HEB is right to want a translation between the language of philosophers and the language of preachers. It won’t be an exact translation, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

16

abb1 02.02.06 at 5:17 am

Behold! To Giblets’s right is the family of an unborn embryonic soldier recently killed in Iraq whose stem cells were kidnapped by gay married terrorists to be used in the creation of an animal-human hybrid. One day we will win this war and we will win it for him. And on that day he will rise from the dead and receive a health savings account!

Giblets is funny…

17

Bro. Bartleby 02.02.06 at 9:16 am

15.

What is that “spark” that occurs when the male and female gametes fuse?

Life! Potentiality is born!

And if we must withhold from calling it life for “practical” purposes, then how honest are we? The female gamete by itself will forever be only an egg, the male gamete by itself will forever be only a sperm (although it may seemingly possess all “normal” male characteristics, a strong single-minded drive, competitive beyond belief, forever wriggling and wrangling to get the prize …) — but when fusion occurs, the female haploid chromosome set and the male haploid chromosome set fuse into a new diploid individual, and it is at this point that “potentiality” occurs — the spark — and egg and sperm are no more.

18

winna 02.02.06 at 10:46 am

Apparently I am a sperm, because those ‘normal’ male characteristics are all ones I possess.

My parents will doubtless be shocked to discover that truth after thirty years of believing they raised a female child.

19

Bro. Bartleby 02.02.06 at 1:16 pm

Sister Winna,

Perhaps you are a cowboy?

Bro. Bartleby

20

KrazyKevin 02.02.06 at 1:46 pm

I think that W just saw the X-Men movie on cable (and he’s really anti-mutant). He doesn’t seem to be able to separate real life events from entertainment. The reason they (W, his supporters and their ilk) give for “needing to torture” and “go around the law to stop the terrorists”” is based on “24”. A TV show on the Fox network. Maybe he doesn’t seem to realize that the Fox TV network is NOT FOX News.

21

Bro. Bartleby 02.02.06 at 3:20 pm

The brothers are currently seated around the dining table in debate over the gender of cowboy. Bro. Sedwick thinks it should be bullboy and cowgirl and so far that seems to be the consensus. Bro. Juniper holds to bullyboy and cowoman.

22

Rebecca Allen 02.02.06 at 3:24 pm

Oops, I think you meant “hyperglycemic,” not “hypoglycemic.” Lack of insulin makes blood glucose go UP, not down.

23

rollo 02.02.06 at 7:25 pm

Fundamentalists are easy targets for ridicule, living straw men for the other side.
And there’s only two sides.
How about the sperm and the ovum are already alive?
How about what’s missing isn’t a good working definition of what life is and where it begins, but reverence for whatever it is, and gratitude that we have it at all.

24

Bro. Bartleby 02.03.06 at 12:24 am

The sperm and ovum, alive, yes, but like the tango, for the birth of potential, the partners must unite. That’s my working definition of when and where human life begins. No union, zero potential for growth, if and when union occurs, growth and potential blossom.

25

abb1 02.03.06 at 2:58 am

It could be a “life”, a could even be “human life”, but still not a “human being”.

For example: acorn certainly is an “oak life”, but it’s not an “oak tree”.

Oak society that’s similar to human society may or may not care about acorns being eaten by squirrels, depending on how under- or over-populated this society is.

The sperm and ovum, alive, yes, but like the tango, for the birth of potential, the partners must unite.

BTW, Bro. Bartleby, help me out here: didn’t God kill one Onan fella for wasting his sperm?

26

Rick 02.03.06 at 9:29 am

“And if it happens as an unintended consequence of his policies, it would be irresponsible to hold him responsible.”

*boggle*

That’s a really flexible notion of responsibility you have there! Or, to borrow from my favorite Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, “That word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

27

bob 02.03.06 at 2:10 pm

Bravo for Bush! For once he is in touch with reality. One of the biggest dangers besetting mankind today is the damger of mad and liberal scientists creating half human and half animal creatures as they did in ancient Greece a few generations back.But if Bush or the FBI are reading these messages, I would like to caution our president about a very frightening matter. Believe me I am knowledgeable about these human animal entities and I must warn the president against his Vice President Richard Cheney. The man is a werewolf and related to Lon Cheney, a known and feared werewolf.If any of you FBI people reading this can get to Bush- warn him in time or else our nation will be under the horrid domination of this evil non-human monster.

28

Sugar Momma 02.03.06 at 2:52 pm

I take insulin. I didn’t know how they manufactured the new synthetic insulin, but I know back in the 70’s when I was diagnosed, it mostly came from pigs, and sometimes from cows.

I take my insulin through a pump. So does that make me an animal-human hybrid or a cyborg?

29

Sugar Momma 02.03.06 at 2:53 pm

One more thing. It should be hyperglycemic, not hypoglycemic (low blood sugar). Lack of insulin would cause the opposite.

30

Bro. Bartleby 02.03.06 at 4:20 pm

An acorn has the potential to be an oak tree, and when grounding corn meal, you too are grounding one potential for another. It’s a trade off, and as long as you understand the truth, then we are not feigning ignorance. So too with the spark of human life, potential is released from dormancy. Of course this potential has a long way to go, but I can’t deny that this too is a birth, the birth of potential to become a baby which has the potential to become a child which has the potential to …

31

kamo 02.03.06 at 6:29 pm

That’s why it peeves me no end every time I read about “a woman’s right to choose” meaning her right to get an abortion, because it implies that women do not have a choice whether or not to have sexual intercourse. And the debate about whether this “gob of cells” is human or not is totally disingenuous. It cannot be anything other than human. Just because it’s microscopic is no reason to disrespect it.

32

rollo 02.04.06 at 2:37 pm

Jots and tittles to the by, what matters – what’s missing from both sides in this – is reverence for life.
The sanctification of zygotes would have more weight if it wasn’t accompanied by a complete disinterest, amounting to criminal negligence, toward the exponential degradation of the aged.
Deifying the blank slate of infancy and calling it innocence is neurotic and weak, regressive self-worship; balancing that, on the other side we have the cold sadistic efficiency of total disregard for all other living things, except inasmuch as they prove immediately useful.
Whoopee.
Solomon’s cleaving sword held in ready abeyance is what brought the genuine maternal love to the fore.
What the increasing prospect of devastating change seems to be bringing forth in many is the magnification of ungoverned self-interest.
Abb1’s analogy machine is accurate on the acorn tip, but bartleby’s right on the grinding. Both leave off too soon.
The oak tree and the oak tree community are acorns as much as trees. That is one thing there. The lines of taxonomic division are conveniences and ultimately inaccurate.
We are sperm and ova as much as ambulatory sensibilities. Distinctions are possible, necessary, but never finely calibrated enough to permit the legal disposition of absurdities which are mainly driven by excuse-seeking selfishness.
Reverence.
Gratitude. Humility.
It starts there, or it doesn’t go anywhere.

33

abb1 02.04.06 at 5:07 pm

Yeah, that’s right: potential for a new life – sure, but so what? I mean, what makes procreation so special, compare to, say, digestion? People have serious deep thoughts about procreation, they agonize over abortion – but they don’t care at all about you eating, say, crap from the KFC. Why not, what’s the difference?

34

Bro. Bartleby 02.04.06 at 8:10 pm

33.

What makes procreation so special? Ask you Mom and Dad. What they did was to put ‘you’ on a trajectory to this very moment. Digestion? And that meal your folks ate that evening way back when, just before the male and female gametes fused. The meal? Short-term potential, but critical nevertheless. For if your father had a bit of heartburn that night it could have precluded that fusion and right now Bro. Bartleby would be responding to Bro. Rollo instead of you.

Some care about what they eat. The prayer before a meal, at its center, is an acknowledgment to God that we understand that the plant or animal that we are about to consume was sacrificed on our behalf. I suppose it is all about living in the moment, especially when a feast is before us and the anticipation of what is to come, the mastication of the drumstick or the taco, so the prior prayer keeps us moment-centered and may even transform the simple meal to the sacred.

Bro. Bartleby

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