A blog by spcaLA president, Madeline Bernstein

Mar 19, 2012

Tortoiseshell Cats Cannot Be Cloned

courtesy Google Images
The ability to genetically engineer food animals, replicate disease free humans and clone your favorite pet have been the fodder for science fiction films as well as for very real debates about the ethical issues attendant when  humans create life. There was quite a stir when a man paid $100,000 to a South Korean laboratory for a genetic replica of his beloved dying dog, as the science involved is not perfect and so may dogs are waiting in shelters for homes.

Well nature has found a way to thwart science in the case of tortoiseshell cats! These cats will not be cloned! The tortoise color comes from one red gene and one black gene that reside in the cat X chromosomes. Due to a process where the developing embryo cells randomly select and deactivate an X chromosome a cat can be black, red, or tortoise - black and red. There is no set blueprint that governs the cells in this process. The cloning procedure takes DNA from one cell which will have only one color. The cats are so stubborn that even if scientist takes a cell before the random deactivation occurs it ultimately occurs anyway and affects the color of siblings. A clear explanation can be found in 109 science publication:

“Tortoiseshell cats are the result of two different genes teaming up. One gene will turn the cat red, a nice solid ginger. The other will make it a black cat. Each gene is inherited from one of the tortoiseshell’s parents. Each is on one of the tortie’s X chromosomes. The tortoiseshell look is produced because of a process called ‘X-linked inactivation.’ The cells of developing embryo of the tortoiseshell cat randomly shut off one of the X chromosomes. And there’s no general consensus among the cells about which one to switch off, so each cell simply picks one. This random shut-off is why tortoiseshells have an unpatterned mix of black and red hair over their bodies.
Cloning a tortoiseshell involves taking the DNA from one cell. Since each of the cells have only one active X chromosome, when a new tortoiseshell embryo is developing using the borrowed DNA, it only has one gene affecting its coloration.
Thus, a cloned tortoiseshell kitten will generally be either black or red. Even if someone were to nab a cell from a developing embryo before the X-linked inactivation happened, the new cloned kitten would also randomly inactivate its X chromosomes, leaving two cloned siblings that don’t have the exact same color pattern.” 

There you have it. I am reminded of this exchange from the film Jurassic Park (1993):

Henry Wu: You're implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will... breed?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No, I'm, I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way. 


Mar 15, 2012

Kony Social Media Activism - Good or Bad for Change

As advocates and activists for the welfare of animals, and users of social media to help achieve those ends, I felt compelled to study the issues attendant to the Kony video campaign. Can we learn anything that will help our animals? What is the best role for social media in our work?  We have responded to specific need requests such as pet food, calls to action involving legislative policies, event publicity and funding pleas. Clearly, social media activism is effective in communicating quickly with a lot of people and in asking for a specific thing such as spreading news, sending an email and providing cash for a project. But can this type of activism bring about sustained change such as ending famine, stopping war crimes or attitude adjustments that last and change our way of life. Is it becoming the easy "go to" tool in the box? Is there a danger that we will get lazy in our activism and let the "mice" do all the work? As a huge believer that there is never too much knowledge I was also startled by the reaction that giving people this information in the first place is not wise as it creates false expectations and dumbs down complex issues. Frankly, that scares me. I am already worried that so much information is filtered through the whims of celebrities. The cynical reality is that if a famous person speaks-more attention will be drawn to the message and the audience will obey. That is why charities seek such spokespeople. I worry about what critical news we are not hearing about simply because Justin Bieber doesn't find it of interest as he did in the Kony situation. I prefer to see everything and decide for myself what to worry about. I also believe there is a valid use of the medium for activists, but that it is not a short cut to the hard work required to ultimately attain our goals. So I wrote the piece below and would be most interested in your thoughts.

courtesy Google images
The use of social media as an activist tool poses interesting questions. The Joseph Kony video is a great case study. The film, celebrity involvement, a charity, Facebook, Twitter, and the ability to click and see the story of a Ugandan war lord and his treatment of children on 100 million smart phones sparked an international conversation. Debates over Ugandan politics, the motives and legitimacy of the charity (Invisible Children) who created the video, the frustration of journalists who reported the story 2 years ago to an apathetic audience, and whether the actual facts were vetted properly – lit up the airwaves and internet.

The discussions are useful. They serve as a natural fact checking process to determine whether there is a real problem that needs addressing, whether this was a fundraising manipulation by a charity, or both. Of course, more people will watch the video than read assorted articles by experts in that area, but, the information is out there to evaluate. Arguing whether this method of messaging is over simplified, sensational, biased, and bad for children is likewise useful as allows us to examine how we receive, process and restate information to each other and to our politicians. The celebrity factor is also at play here.  Journalists couldn’t get the story heard years ago yet with the nudge of a couple of celebrity re-tweets it went viral. In other words, if the subject is interesting to Justin Bieber or Rihanna, we are more likely to hear about it.

The ultimate question seems to be whether or not this type of activism is successful in effectuating positive change and therefore should be replicated. Success is defined in the eyes of the beholder. The goal of boosting awareness and raising funds is not the same as actually arresting a war criminal and changing a political system. We know the use of social media can succeed in achieving the former, but we are not so sure about the latter. Additionally, one wonders how many times it could work successfully before the responding clickers lose interest or become desensitized to endless horrors and cause campaigns.. 

In October of 2010, Malcolm Gladwell published an article for The New Yorker entitled “Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”. Comparing the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and other social revolutions, Gladwell asks the same question. He describes the scene where 4 black college students sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina and refused to leave their seats. The restaurant would not serve them. More protesters gathered on their behalf, sit-ins began and eventually 70,000 students were actively involved in the protest. He argues that this type of   “high risk strong-tie” commitment is not created through social media platforms which are built upon “weak-tie connections”. Gladwell goes on to say: “ Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.”

It seems social media activism is still evolving. Knowledge is critical. We need to know of a problem to solve it. Now 100 million people know something. Critical thinking about the information allows the vetting, analysis and evaluation of the issue to occur. Then old school hard work must follow to ultimately accomplish change. Documentation, constituency building, organizing and developing strategic plans to implement reforms must also occur.

Knowing is better than not knowing, but clicking is not enough action.

Article first published as Are Social Media Campaigns Like Kony Successful in Effecting Change on Technorati.