I was standing in line at the Barnes & Noble checkout counter last night (buying comic books, if you must know), when my eyes rested on a copy of the latest National Geographic. The huge picture of a red fox stared back at me. The headline read, "Designing the Perfect Pet: Can a Fox Become Man's Best Friend?"
I snatched the issue up. It just so happens that genetically-engineered pet foxes make a cameo in my latest short story, "How to Hack Your Dragon," which is being released on the 22nd in Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions. They were just something I'd made up--or thought I had. But here they were--foxes that were being bred by Russian scientists for domestication, in a sped-up process meant to recreate the transformation of wolves into dogs. So, the scientists weren't using genetic engineering to make wild foxes into pet foxes ("lapfoxes" I call them in my story, to allude to the fact that they sit on human laps), but they are using these foxes (along with aggressively-bred counterparts) to explore the genes that control domestication. It's the sort of experiment that could lead to something like lapfoxes actually happening in the future.
Interesting stuff, especially considering that--although the scientists are breeding only for behavioral traits of domestication--the animals have spontaneously begun to display the physical traits of domestication, too--traits like floppy ears and spotted coats. These physical characteristics are somewhat universal to all domesticated animals, be they cows, dogs, or fish. (All right, so fish can't have floppy ears--but they can have spots.)
Excitedly, I mentioned the experiment to my beau. His eyes widened. "That's horrible!" he said.
I was taken aback. Who wouldn't want a cute, cuddly fox as a pet? It's not like we'd be messing with the wild population. However, that might be an issue, if domesticated foxes mingled with wild natives. But that hasn't been a concern with dogs and wolves or coyotes...right?
"No," he said. "Think of the implications. If they can domesticate foxes...they could try to domesticate us."
"Posh!" I said. "We are the standard to which other creatures are domesticated. We can't be domesticated, because we are the model of domestication."
Actually, I didn't say "posh," and I couldn't find the right words to say what I meant, so what I said was more like, "What? They can't domesticate us! We--domesticated--already. Um. I have an argument, but I can't find the words. (mumbling). Right. (turns back to WoW)"
I finished reading the article before bed, so it was much later when I arrived at the place where the article mentioned us humans. As it turns out, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is now funding the fox project because of its implications for human behavior. They believe that the domestication of foxes might give us a clue into how we became "domesticated"...and how our genes code our social behavior.
Boyfriend was right.
My first thought: Might those genes be rewritten in those of us who aren't quite as "domesticated" as we should be?
"Yeah," said my friend, Bender. "We'll be rewriting our own software in the future. We'll be able to do whatever we want to ourselves."
Actually, what he might have said was, "They will be able to do whatever they want to us."
But I can't recall his exact words.
Speaking of rewriting ourselves...we may also be able to rebuild ourselves quite soon. Just before the article about the foxes was a piece called "Miracle Grow." On the page next to the title was an ear in a petri dish. Just an ear. The texture of the thing was reminiscent of wax or styrafoam, in a very light pink color. Its caption read, "The synthetic scaffold of an ear sits bathed in cartilage-producing cells, part of an effort to grow new ears for wounded soldiers."
Funny. Just last week, Bender sent me three articles about scientists at the Wake Forest University Institute of Regenerative Medicine who are discovering new ways to build custom replacement organs. One method involved "printing" tissue into the shape of organs, much similar to 3D printing technology that is used for things like Figure Prints. In fact, I had been planning to write my very next post--this one--about "printed" organs, several days before I landed on the National Geographic article.
Besides the printing technique, National Geographic explains that scientists are fabricating organs by using cartilaginous scaffolds and then growing tissue cells atop it.
I am reminded of "Repo: The Genetic Opera" and "Repo Men." Both good, macabre movies (Repo Men is also a book) about organ replacement corporations who hire repo men to bloodily confiscate products that have not been paid for.
Tinkering with domestication genes, and growing replacements for body parts... What do you think are the implications?