Margaret Atwood’s book is fiction, but the cutting-edge research she writes about is real.
Don’t call the novel Oryx and Crake a work of sci-fi. Author Margaret Atwood prefers the term “speculative fiction”—she says the things she writes about depict a plausible version of the future. Indeed, as Atwood indicated in a 2004 interview on Science Friday, her scientific research for the story was extensive, filling up two big storage boxes in her cellar.
Her attention to detail got us wondering: What research might have inspired her? And how on-point were her scientific speculations? We picked a few concepts from the book that appear to be rooted in reality or that seemed particularly prescient. Can you think of any more?
Green Glowing Bunnies
Across the clearing to the south comes a rabbit, hopping, listening, pausing to nibble at the grass with its gigantic teeth. It glows in the dusk, a greenish glow filched from the iridicytes of a deep-sea jellyfish in some long-ago experiment. In the half-light the rabbit looks soft and almost translucent, like a piece of Turkish delight; as if you could suck off its fur like sugar. Even in Snowman’s boyhood there were luminous green rabbits, though they weren’t this big and they hadn’t yet slipped their cages and bred with the wild populations, and becomes a nuisance.—from Oryx and Crake, chapter 5
In 2000, self-described transgenic artist Eduardo Kac introduced the world to a real albino rabbit that glowed green under blue lighting conditions. Her name was Alba, and her verdure came from a protein called green fluorescent protein, or GFP, encoded by a gene that had been inserted at the rabbit’s zygote stage. Alba became the centerpiece of an art concept that Kac called “GFP Bunny,” which involved other components as well, such as a public discourse about “the cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering.”
Green fluorescent protein was first discovered in 1962 in the Pacific jellyfish Aequorea victoria and eventually became a boon to biochemists and molecular and cell biologists as both a research subject and an experimental tool for studying gene expression and tracking proteins in cells and whole organisms.
For example, reporting in Nature Methods in 2011, researchers studying HIV resistance inserted a modified version of the GFP gene into cat oocytes (eggs), along with a monkey gene that coded for a protein known to block cell infection by FIV, the feline form of HIV. Offspring that glowed green indicated that the transfer was successful. “It allows you to tell whether the gene of interest is in the cell without having to do an invasive test,” explained Eric Poeschla, who led the study, in an interview with NPR.
Since the turn of the century, various transgenic fluorescing animals—including monkeys, pigs, and more rabbits—have routinely cropped up in the scientific literature, illuminating new avenues of research.
He got himself a better DVD player, a gym suit that cleaned itself overnight due to sweat-eating bacteria, a shirt that displayed email on its sleeve while giving him a little nudge every time he had a message, shoes that changed colour to match his outfits, a talking toaster.—from Oryx and Crake, chapter 10
You can’t find them in the mall just yet, but Juan Hinestroza, an associate professor of fiber science at Cornell University, is developing electronic textiles. He spoke to Science Friday in 2014 about the work done in his lab, where they aim to incorporate high-tech functions into cotton.
“We are a little bit far away from the market,” he told SciFri host Ira Flatow, “but that is our dream—that there will be no interface between clothing and the electronics. In fact, the clothing will be the electronics.” For example, he said that they had created a thread that can conduct electricity.
When Ira talked with Hinestroza, his lab was also researching antibacterial textiles. “We work on using nanoparticles to kill bacteria and prevent bacteria from being on the surface of fibers,” he told Ira. Here’s hoping there will be a time when we never have to wash gym clothes again.
At the entranceway was a bronzed statue of the Institute’s mascot, the goat/spider—one of the first successful splices, done in Montreal at the turn of the century, goat crossed with spider to produce high-tensile spider silk filaments in the milk. The main application nowadays was bulletproof vests.—from Oryx and Crake, chapter 8
Silk is a wonder material, combining strength and elasticity seen nowhere else in nature. But farming spiders to make more of the stuff for use in, say, textiles, isn’t practical. So, scientists have been developing transgenic organisms to help produce the starting materials for synthetic silk.
For example, a team led by Randy Lewis, a molecular biologist at Utah State University, maintains a herd of so-called “spider goats.” They contain a gene from the golden orb-weaving spider that codes for a silk protein, which the animals produce in their milk. As Tech Insider reported, “the milk has to be separated and refined several times, then washed, freeze-dried, and turned into a powder. The powder can be spun into a fiber, or transformed into a coating or adhesive.” (You can see a taxidermy version of “Freckles,” one of Lewis’s spider goats, in this SciFri video; it’s on display at the Center for Post Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)
Lewis’s team has also created transgenic silkworms, alfalfa, and bacteria capable of producing spider silk proteins. And last December, the university signed a contract with the Department of Defense to provide the U.S. Army with synthesized silk, according to the Standard Examiner, a Utah daily news site. Maybe bulletproof vests spun from silken fiber will hit the scene after all.
(For the record, as Atwood alluded, a Montreal-based company was indeed involved in producing spider goats at the turn of the century. It was called Nexia Biotechnologies, and it reportedly went bankrupt in 2009.)
The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host—organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year. A rapid maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time. Such a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then, rather than be destroyed, it could keep on living and grow more organs, much as a lobster could grow another claw to replace a missing one. That would be less wasteful, as it took a lot of food and care to grow a pigoon.—from Oryx and Crake, chapter 2
The prospect of animals growing human organs for harvesting just got a bit of a reality boost: A couple weeks ago, the National Institutes of Health proposed changes to federal guidelines for human stem cell research. If accepted, they’d lift a ban on funding for some research that inserts human stem cells into non-human vertebrate embryos.
“An increasing number of researchers are interested in growing human tissues and organs in animals by introducing pluripotent human cells into early animal embryos,” wrote Carrie D. Wolinetz, the associate director for science policy for the NIH, in a blog post in early August. “Formation of these types of human-animal organisms, referred to as ‘chimeras,’ holds tremendous potential for disease modeling, drug testing, and perhaps eventual organ transplant.”
As the New York Times reported, “If the funding ban is lifted, it could help patients by, for example, encouraging research in which a pig grows a human kidney for a transplant.”
Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute in California, has been investigating that notion. In 2015, Science reported that Izpisúa Belmonte and his colleagues had identified “a new type of human pluripotent stem cell that seems to be especially good at contributing to animal embryos.” They injected those cells into pig embryos to create chimeras that developed for two to three weeks and found that the cells contributed to the growing pancreas and heart, according to Science. Their chimeric research is still very early stages, however, so don’t expect pigoon transplant organs to be available any time soon.