Sunday, June 17, 2007

Designer Dogs

Today's Sunday morning Pioneer Press was just loaded with articles that demonstrate how we humans may know a lot about manipulating science but little about the moral or ethical repercussions of that manipulation. On the human side were thoughts, facts and figures on selective reduction when fertility treatment "failures" result in three or more fetuses.
Several pages later, a reprint of a New York Times article on DNA testing to reshape dogs (see photo below) explored the potential for using our knowledge of the canine genome to create perfect dogs.

What a tantalizing thought.

Imagine if breeding programs for service or guide dogs were able to use the DNA imprint of breeding dogs to guarantee an intelligent, social dog free of skin or skeletal issues common to the breed. No more costly time and effort spent on training a dog that would ultimately be pulled from the program because of hip dysplasia, or allergies, or anti-social behavior. No more dollars spent to surgically repair the dysplasias or purchase medicines to treat the allergies.

Sounds perfect, doesn't it? If we really knew all there is to know about the complexities of gene selection and relationships between various genes, it might be a perfect solution. But we don't and therein lies the problem. What we know of the canine DNA genome only serves to provide us with a high tech view of the pedigree chart. It's more information, yes, but is it information that we should act on? We don't know the answer to that question. Yet many will act on the information assuming that more is better.

Don't forget that we humans also come in all shapes and sizes. Although many of us will use this knowledge at its' best, there are also many who won't. We have a dark side, unfortunately. In addition, the definition of perfect is as unique as the individual defining it.

Is this to say that we should stop all research into this complex area? The answer to this question for me is a resounding no. I am advocating caution and care and asking those that study in these areas to always remember that what we may define as perfect today may be a perfect nightmare tomorrow.

The photo at right (photo credit, Stuart Isett, The New York Times) shows the results of using canine genome knowledge in whippet breeding. The dog on the left is a normal whippet. The dog on the right is a "bully" whippet, bred for a specific genetic mutation that enhances muscle development.

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