Wow … while scouring the internet this week, I happened upon a mention of a “bioproducts” company called Solazyme. Word is that, at an intellectual property conference held last week in Chicago, Solazyme proudly displayed in the convention hall one of its new products: a pig that had been genetically modified to grow body parts to be used for transplantation into humans.
Apparently, Solazyme isn’t the first to venture into this territory. In 2002 National Geographic reported that competing teams of scientists had been cloning genetically-modified pigs, to use their organs for human transplantation:
“Pig organs are well suited for transplantation; they are approximately the same size as human organs and have similar plumbing, which makes reconnecting blood vessels much easier. Also, the size of pig litters tends to be large and pigs reproduce quickly, raising the prospect of a large supply of ‘spare’ organs.”
One hitch, however, is that “natural” pigs’ organs are generally rejected by humans, due to an idiosyncratic coating of sugar molecules. The fix: scientists simply created cloned piglets programmed without the sugar-producing gene. This was a significant scientific advance because the researchers were able to “knock out” a targeted gene at a specific location.
Though scientifically laudatory, this work by geneticists — and its subsequent commercialization and marketing by companies like Solazyme — promises to open up a proverbial can of (genetically-modified?) worms. Once fundamentalist Christians, FoxNews, and PETA latch onto this story, I imagine it will stir vigorous debate.
Perhaps that’s why, during a quick visit to Solazyme’s website, I found absolutely no mention of livestock, genetically-modified or otherwise. Maybe they’re planning to break it to us gently. I’ll keep tabs on this story. More later.