Modern genetic technology has the potential to remake animals in almost any way we can imagine. With reassuring, wry humor, Glowing Bunnies!?: Why We’re Making Hybrids, Chimeras, and Clones explores the possibilities, dangers, and ethical issues of bioengineering.
Today author Jeff Campbell joins us to discuss genetic engineering, eco-disasters, and the importance of discussing bioengineering with teens. Read on to download the free teaching guide!
What inspired you to write about genetic engineering?
I got the idea when I was writing Last of the Giants, which is about recently extinct and critically endangered animals. So many stories in that book—like the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, and the thylacine—kept ending the same way: But wait, scientists are trying to bring this species back to life! At the time, I didn’t know resurrecting extinct species was even possible. It sounded like science fiction. Then, as I explored further, I discovered we’re tinkering with animals for a whole host of reasons—not just to save species but to create medicine, improve agriculture, and combat climate change. I felt like the future was here, and no one was talking about it.
I feel strongly that we, as a society, but especially teens, need to be aware of and discuss bioengineering, which could radically alter our future. My hope is that this book will help inspire the conversations we need to have about the best ways to use this technology.
What bioengineered animals are you most excited about seeing created?
No question, the woolly mammoth. The vision of herds of re-created woolly mammoth stomping across the arctic is just so thrilling. But also, the purpose of restoring the woolly mammoth is to combat climate change, and I can’t think of anything more profound than re-creating the past to save our future—really, to improve the future for all life on Earth.
But maybe like everyone else, I also want to see a dinosaur reborn—even if it will only be the size of a chicken. If it can be done, that would be a mind-blowing achievement. It would essentially prove the theory of evolution by creating a brand-new, real-life dinosaur.
What surprised you the most about this topic?
Everything about genetic engineering amazes me. I am constantly surprised. It seems like every month there is a new breakthrough—something we once considered impossible that we can now do. It’s been hard to keep up with the science. I was adding new information in the book right up to the last minute!
Maybe the thing that has surprised me the most is that researching genetic engineering has made the topic less scary. I expected to be freaked out, but I’m actually less anxious. I no longer think there’s anything inherently wrong or “unnatural” about tinkering with genes. This isn’t something humans invented. It’s the way our bodies are meant to work in order to survive. For instance, CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing tool that is revolutionizing science, simply uses the body’s existing mechanism for making genetic edits to help recognize and fight viruses.
Of course, the big difference is that we can now control this mechanism and use it to make whatever changes we want. But our bodies are changing, anyway. We tend to think of ourselves and all species as static. As fixed, unchanging things. But our eyes deceive us. Life never sits still. Bodies and genes are constantly adapting to the environment. And with climate change, we might find that species change much more rapidly and dramatically than we’re used to. In a few hundred years, I don’t think any species, including ourselves, will be exactly the same as they are today.
Should people be worried about genetic engineering—such as whether or not to eat genetically modified animals?
In general, I think we need to be very cautious and careful with how we use genetic engineering. But I’m less worried about the technology in itself than I am about people and what they might do with it. Humans can be selfish and short-sighted, impulsive and overconfident. It’s easy to imagine someone using this technology in ill-considered ways or for the wrong reasons and causing harm.
That said, one thing I no longer worry about is eating the meat and products of bioengineered animals. So long as an altered animal is found to be safe and healthy, I don’t see any reason to stress about where their genes come from. So what if a salmon has a few genes from some other fish? Personally, if researchers can bioengineer chickens that resist the avian flu, I will happily eat their eggs.
Could bioengineered animals create some kind of eco-catastrophe?
Genetic engineering is a powerful technology, and we have to take the potential dangers seriously. With some types of genetic engineering, or with some types of applications, it’s genuinely possible that we could cause some kind of widespread environmental harm. Ultimately, there might be some types of changes we shouldn’t make, like creating “gene drives” that could quickly alter entire species or even drive a species to extinction.
I think the biggest challenge facing us today is distinguishing what’s safe from what might not be, and understanding what the risks are in each case. This technology is still new, and we’re still learning how genes work. Some types of genetic change are benign, and some applications could dramatically improve the world. Which is which? I can’t answer that, but it’s what we as a society need to discuss and figure out.
What do you think will be the most important or life-changing applications?
In medicine and agriculture. That is, making genetic changes to fight disease and create medicine, and altering food animals to make agriculture less polluting, more efficient, and kinder. We have the tools right now to improve the health of humans and other animals and to lessen the massive environmental impact of agriculture. While caution is important, I think one day we might look back and wonder why we didn’t make certain changes sooner. I think one day, like with the computer, we’ll wonder how we ever survived without genetic engineering.
Do you think we will ever clone or genetically alter people?
Yes, I do. Definitely not tomorrow, but eventually, as we get more comfortable with the technology. In fact, a scientist in China has already genetically altered twin girls. The real question is, “What sorts of changes will societies allow?” Personally, I’m sure that one day we will clone a human. I kind of hope it happens in my lifetime, since it would be fascinating to hear firsthand what it’s like. My guess? I bet being a clone is just like being anyone else.
Praise for Glowing Bunnies!?
“Divided into five parts, this fascinating, detailed text focuses on how genetic engineering could help animal conservation and the extinction crisis, restore damaged ecosystems, make agriculture more efficient and less polluting, create unusual and useful pets, and fight or eliminate disease in both animals and humans. . . . presents safety and ethical pros and cons, raises legal considerations, and asks guided questions but ultimately allows readers to decide for themselves.”—Booklist
“A controversial subject presented with verve that allows readers to make up their own minds.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Stories about genetically modified animals are riveting as well as thought-provoking, making it difficult to quit reading. While some may object to the book’s content, those interested in whether the science we can do is the science we should do will find this an invaluable addition to their STEM collection.” – School Library Connection
Free Educator Resources
Download the teaching guide for Glowing Bunnies!? to engage students and encourage critical thinking.
Connect with the Author
Jeff Campbell is a freelance writer and book editor. For twelve years he was a travel writer for Lonely Planet and has written two young adult books: Daisy to the Rescue, and Last of the Giants, about conservation. He lives in Morristown, New Jersey.
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