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Abuse Or Innovation? Genetically Modified Animal Fur

Lions, And Tigers, And Dogs–Oh No!

Animal lovers have long sought ways to add a little bit more pizzazz to their pets, from cutesy cat sweaters to the curious Chinese subculture that colors and shapes dogs’ fur to mimic other animals. Now, one professor is attempting to take animal glamour to a whole different—tattoo-like—level. Dr. James West of Vanderbilt University has found a way to make animal dye jobs permanent through his start-up AgGenetics, which is pioneering a genetic modification technique said to be the first-of-its-kind.

For better or worse, West has discovered how to tinker with nature in order to “paint” new fur colors and patterns onto animals, so far creating brown lab rats with black squares, stripes, and polka dots. His first goal is to market customized animal creation to the cattle industry, creating an all-white version of Angus cows that will be more heat tolerant than their naturally occurring counterparts, who sport black or red hides.

West isn’t the first to use genetic modification to change the color of animal fur. Scientists found a way to change the shade of mouse hair back in 2002, when researchers in San Diego gave unsuspecting rodents shocks of green fur. (“They’re punk mice, you could say,” their creator told New Scientist.) Humans aren’t so different—discussion surrounding a parent’s ability to create a “designer baby” in the womb by selecting traits like hair and eye color has become increasingly controversial in recent years as the concept moves ever closer towards reality.

But West’s technique differs from all those preceding it because, according to the patent, it is the first to truly create “customizable color or patterns in the skin or fur of animal species.” His start-up is currently attempting to raise $5 million using the online tool AgFunder, which matches budding agriculture entrepreneurs with investors.

West could not be reached for comment, but ultimately, if his project succeeds in a large-scale capacity, it’s not difficult to imagine a whole subset of well-funded (slightly nutty) pet owners latching on to a new-fangled “personalized pets” trend. A weasel tricked out to look like Strawberry Shortcake? What about a whole set of gerbils tinted the colors of the rainbow? The possibilities are endlessand terrifying.

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