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Location: Central Florida, Florida, United States

Paramedic EMT-II (Ret.), Computer software designer, Building contractor, Cruising sailor, Humorist. . . obviously unable to hold a job.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sheep Thrills

Pity the lowly sheep. Long terrorized by lonely farm hands, these docile creatures are now the target of every geneticist with a Federal grant and a dream. Since the news of Dolly and her cloned counterparts hit the news a couple of years back, the plight of the sheep has grown ever dismal. Now scientists have injected spider genes into goats (a close cousin to sheep . . . sorry for the lame segue) in a successful attempt to create goats that produce milk filled with whispy strands of silk. I see this as a frightening escalation. First sheep, now goats . . . will any species be safe?

Spider silk, for those of you who slept through eight grade science class, is stronger than steel and is a much coveted commodity. Uses include delicate sutures for eye surgery, the repair of ligaments and tendons, and (not surprisingly) some defense department applications. For years, the commercial production of spider silk has been an unobtainable holy grail for which companies like 3M and Dupont have spent millions.

If we exclude the ramifications (this technique is for ewe . . . and ewe alone), I suppose this is a good thing. After all, we can now dispense with the old fashioned and highly impractical custom of milking spiders for their silk. Not only is this just too creepy for words, it requires the use of a very low stool. No longer will we be forced to watch in horror as spider wranglers, brooms in hand, drive their herds to market.

While I applaud the ingenuity of the scientists who have created this new species (spigoats?), the whole idea leaves me a bit uneasy. No one asked these goats if they would mind a little genetic manipulation. Maybe they are happy about the situation, and my concerns are unfounded, but I suspect not. I know I would be unhappy if some scientist injected me with spider genes. I cannot abide being in the same room as a spider, so having their genetic material flowing through my body is the thing that nightmares are made of.

And what of their offspring? They depend upon mothers milk to survive. Are they gagging on strands of silk in their milk? Let’s face it. Goat’s milk is barely palatable to begin with. Adding additional viscosity to it cannot possibly help the situation. And what happens to future generations? Will they be born with eight legs and a vindictive personality? Are we faced with a future filled with agile, eight legged goats climbing our walls and hiding under our beds? Has anyone else even thought about these possibilities?

I thought not.

Were goats properly represented in congress, through professional lobbyists, this sad state of affairs would never exist. This hardly seems fair . . . as jackasses are universally over represented. This is just another example of how the disenfranchised are ignored by the powers that be.

As researchers are never happy with the status quo, how long will it be before we begin injecting cows with spider genes? A cow produces greater quantities of milk than a goat, so this is a natural progression. This could signal the end of dairy products as we know them. What farmer would elect to raise a normal herd when a genetically altered one could produce milk fetching a far higher price? Will future generations be raised on soy milk alone? Are cheddar and American cheese on the endangered list? Yes, I suppose string cheese is still an option, but this will grow tiresome after awhile.

Frankly, the whole idea reeks of a low budget 1950’s science fiction movie plot. Except back then we had the good graces to blame radiation for mutations. Now we are creating them in laboratories and on purpose. What’s next? Are boneless chickens destined to be flopping pitifully around the farm? Will we inject pit bulls with rattlesnake genes in order to create the ultimate guard dog?

You might dismiss these worries by saying they will happen when pigs fly. But I should warn you, there is undoubtedly a scientist somewhere who is working on this weighty problem as we speak.


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