In a secret, locked barn near DeForest, five black-and-white calves look up from their hay with huge, friendly eyes. No. 313 approaches, as if to grant an interview, for these are not the ordinary bovines they seem _ all five are part human.
The five calves are clones, which is eerie enough. In addition, human DNA was added to their genetic makeup when they were embryos.
Their DNA is still more than 99.9 percent bovine, less than 0.1 percent human, but the human component means that they are expected to produce a human protein, C-1 Esterase Inhibitor, in their milk. That could treat humans suffering from angioedema, an ailment that arises from a lack of C-1.
These humanoid calves offer a window into a future in which lines are blurred between humans and other species. Biotechnology is transforming the world around us, far more quickly than we can build a regulatory structure to accommodate it. Human cloning gets the attention, but for the next 15 years the greater impact will arise from the genetic manipulation of animals.
Infigen, a biotech company in DeForest, near Madison, has itself cloned 193 cattle and 125 pigs. Jenny Endres, the manager in one of Infigen's barns, last week showed off a line of cow clones that all look alike. "These clones have the same personalities," she said, beaming.
"They bellow all the time," she insisted. "They're hungry all the time. They're easygoing, friendly."
Later this year the Food and Drug Administration may lift its ban on the sale of milk and meat from cloned animals. In the interests of science, I took a sip of cloned milk to see what might happen. Fresh from the udder, the raw milk was warm and tasted excellent. (Then I took another sip with each of my three new heads.)
The possibilities are dizzying. Michael Bishop, Infigen's president, says that cows could be engineered to produce extra beta casein, which would make them ideal for producing mozzarella cheese. Other cows could specialize in producing infant formula or even, by splicing in human DNA, someday be made to produce torrents of genuine human breast milk from their udders.
Infigen is already cloning cows with human DNA to produce products such as human collagen (cosmetic surgeons now use animal collagen to create fuller lips); human fibrinogen, used to treat wounds; and human factor VIII, used for blood clotting.
In a pig barn nearby, Bishop showed off his pride: a piglet bred to be perfect for producing organs for humans who need transplants. The piglet has had a gene knocked out to reduce the chance that the human body will reject organs from it.
Biotechnology faces crippling obstacles, including a drought of venture capital that will kill off plenty of companies. But eventually, genetically modified pigs (perhaps slightly human in their genetics) will be able to produce livers, kidneys, hearts and pancreases for ailing patients.
These technologies could help the 80,000 Americans now on waiting lists for organ transplants. But there are also ethical and philosophical questions about whether it is wise to blur the distinction between what is human and what is not.
Francis Fukuyama, in his brilliant new book on cloning, Our Post-Human Future, warns that we could face a future "in which any notion of "shared humanity' is lost, because we have mixed human genes with those of so many other species that we no longer have a clear idea of what a human being is."
My instinct is that the benefit in saving lives outweighs the risks. But Fukuyama is right that if we are to embrace this future, we must do so with eyes wide open. A first step would be to establish a cabinet-level Science Department (replacing the dinosaur of an Agriculture Department, which should be downgraded to an agency).
The Science Department would regulate biotechnology, but would also be charged with puzzling through its philosophical implications and educating the public about our choices, acting as a sounding board for the nation. We must ensure that we consciously choose our future, rather than let advancing science drive us into one by default.
I sought a comment from Ms. 313. (In this newspaper even part-humans get honorifics.) After a moment's reflection, she put it this way: "Moo."
Nicholas D. Kristof is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times