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This Week in the Future: Healthier Pets Through Biology

Healthy Pets Through BiologyAndrew Hessel is always fun to talk to. He looks and talks like a mad scientist. He’s the closest person you’ll meet to a comic book super villain. He’s tall and lean and has a habit of laughing nervously mid-sentence.

Andrew is a synthetic biologist that talks about using viruses to infect people with genetic modifications. Before you light up the Bat Signal or call for Spiderman, I should also tell you that Andrew is also on a mission to cure cancer, and he’s doing it for free. He’s a co-founder of Pink Army Cooperative, a group of cancer fighters who pioneer open-source cancer treatments. He’s basically curing cancer for free.

(He’s not such a bad guy, but when you meet him, he really does make you think of a super villain. I’m just saying.)

I called Andrew to talk about the future of pets.

“It makes financial sense to start engineering our pets,” Andrew said. “Sometimes people spend as much on their pets as they do on their children. Not to mention the entire breeding culture of dogs especially strives for pure breeds. What better way to make a pure breed then to engineer it?!”

Is That Your Cat… or a Hackable Computer?

Think of the genome of your pet as computer code. When we sequence the genes of our pets, we get back a massive block of code that correlates to the look of your cat as well as its behavior. Gene markers inside that big block of code show us exactly what part of the code correlates directly to a specific trait in the kitty.

As we begin to sequence the genome of our pets, the first thing we will get is healthier animals. We can make sure they don’t have any of those nasty pure breed side effects that we see every now and again.

Andrew told me that there’s something else even more interesting. We can not only sequence our pet’s genome, but we can also sequence their micro biome; this is the genetic code for all the organisms living in and on the animal.

“Have you ever had a dog with really bad diarrhea?” Andrew asked with a giggle. “It’s really bad and really bad for the dog. But if we can sequence the poop, we can actually find out what’s wrong with the little fella. It will give us healthier pets.”

As we move into the future and the tools for gene sequencing and engineering become more powerful, our pets might even become the place we go for our own clinical trials. Genetically, our cats and dogs look a lot more like us than lab rats. Our pets could become a place for us to test out our own personalized medical treatments.

What if you didn’t have to trust what some large corporation says about a treatment? What if you didn’t have to endure the long wait for approval of a treatment you needed right away? Imagine using your own personal tool and exploring the effectiveness of your pets.

“The really fun stuff is the pet engineering,” Andrew said. He laughed again: “Once we understand the genomes from multiple animals we can take bit of code from one animal and mix it with another. We could take a gene from a jelly fish. It’s a green florescent protein and combine it with a kitty cat, so that its eyes glow green. It all starts in pets. It all should start in pets. But you can see how it easily leads to humans.”

Seeing the Future in Your Cat’s Eyes

We silly humans are not the only ones obsessed with cats. Earlier this year, when Google created a brain-like neural network made up of 16,000 computer processors for machine learning and set it loose on the internet, what did it look at? Cats! The massive new intelligence taught itself to recognize cats.

Maybe pets, like little Merlin! of Team Shelly Palmer, might be the harbingers for our future. If that’s true, we know one thing for sure: the future is going to be cute!

(This is the second part of Brian David Johnson’s look into the future of pets. For see part one, click here.)


DISCLAIMERI am Intel’s futurist. I am currently on sabbatical from Intel.  My thoughts, observations and analyses are mine personally and I am not speaking on behalf of Intel.


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Shelly Palmer is the host of Fox Television’s "Shelly Palmer Digital Living" television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.

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