Friday, March 9, 2012

Spider goats

Spiders are in the news these days. A Japanese professor of chemistry, Shigeyoshi Osaki, who has been studying spider silk for the last 35 years, has succeeded in collecting and processing a sufficient quantity of silk from several hundred Golden Orb spiders to make a set of violin strings. Specialists are most impressed by the mellow timbre of sounds produced by these strings, which can be heard here:

In a quite different domain, there has been a lot of talk these days about the fabulous work in genetic engineering carried out by a US professor of molecular biology, Randy Lewis, whose specialty is the breeding of an exotic creature: the spider goat. At first sight, the concept of a goat that is part spider, biologically speaking, is rather frightening.

But that spectacular image from the Next Nature website [access] is belied by an actual photo of Randy Lewis cuddling one of his spider kids, which look and behave exactly like normal little loveable animals.

Randy Lewis has extracted from spiders the gene for web construction, and then inserted it into the genetic context, in a goat ovule, that concerns lactation. In a nutshell, the female kid born with such a DNA cocktail will produce milk containing strands of the same protein that would be referred to, out in the wide world, as a spider's web.

Before accepting his present position at Utah State University, Randy Lewis had started his research in synthetic biology in Wyoming, where he was once interviewed on the nature and purpose of his activities in the domain of spider goats:

The Guardian in the UK has just published an interesting up-to-date article on this subject [access].

I'm convinced that spider goats might be considered as a spectacular symbol of the vast array of developments that await us in the domain of genetic engineering. An observer might ask: What is the supposed right of scientists such as Randy Lewis to fiddle with the archaic natural biology of an innocent animal such as a goat, and transform its offspring into monsters whose milk is full of spider webs? That kind of question, to my mind, is misguided, if not stupid. There are many excellent reasons behind the goal of learning how to manufacture artificial spider webs. Spider goats would appear to be a plausible approach to meeting this challenge. These weird creatures of modern science, capable of producing in their milk the substance of spider webs, do not appear to suffer in any way whatsoever as a consequence of this research. So, why might we imagine any kind of evil in this domain?

Admittedly, there are lots of question marks, and it would be potentially dangerous to look upon spider goats as if they were ordinary animals. In fact, they remain extraordinary creatures, and researchers are obliged to respect stringent procedures for isolating these animals from ordinary farmyard goats. For example, it would be unthinkable, for the moment, to produce a new variety of cheese based upon the milk of spider goats. Researchers in genetic engineering realize that, like Prometheus, they would appear to be intent upon stealing the secrets of fire, as it were, from the gods. So, they must be constantly careful, in all that they do. However they've finally learned enough about the mysteries of creation and evolution to be able to communicate with the gods on a peer-to-peer basis.

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