If you thought the public debate over new genetic technologies couldn’t get any more muddled, just watch what happens as this product starts to show up in pet stores nationwide. Yes, that’s right, hypoallergenic cats. Specifically, they’re cats that don’t express the gene for the most significant feline allergen protein. They are not clones, nor are they genetically modified in the same way many of our crops are these days, but they’re also not quite “natural.” Here’s why these distinctions matter.
The Allerca cat was produced by biotechnology-assisted artificial selection. Like traditional animal breeders, the company identified a desirable trait (lack of the allergen), then crossed animals with that trait, selectively inbreeding the offspring that inherited it. The result was a stable line of domestic cats that don’t produce the allergen. Why was this “biotechnology-assisted?” Because it used molecular techniques to test the animals for the expression of the undesirable gene, something that would have been difficult or impossible just a few years ago.
The strategy is nearly identical to one used in the late 1990s to speed up selective breeding in trees. An Australian company named ForBio, which has since gone out of business, had hoped to select new strains of trees with a range of commercially useful traits, from disease resistance to increased paper pulp production. More efficient technologies for producing transgenic trees(PDF) made ForBio’s approach a lot less attractive to investors.
That brings me to the kicker: will more efficient genetic modification techniques be developed for cats, and will those supplant the current Allerca artificial selection approach? If so, we should be on our guard for a subtle bait-and-switch. We’ve been artificially selecting cats for thousands of years, and the current Allerca technique is only a minor addition to that time-honored practice. The molecular techniques make it quicker and easier to find the kittens with the right traits, but they don’t enable anything fundamentally new.
Putting in transgenes from other species would be a much more significant change. For example, the green fluorescent protein from a bioluminescent jellyfish can be transferred into mammals to make them glow bright green under ultraviolet lights. It’s unlikely one could ever get that result through selective breeding, and that’s just the tip of the issue.
A substantial increase in the efficiency of feline somatic cell nuclear transfer would be yet another major departure. SCNT can yield a genetically identical copy of an individual, but it can also be used to delete or replace specific genes. Like transgenesis, it enables entirely new classes of genetic modification that could never be done through traditional breeding.
Unfortunately, public discourse on these distinct technologies has already melded into a single pot of rhetorical goo. Once Allerca cats become commonplace, I imagine the genetically modified pet market will be wide open.