Cyborg Cockroaches and the Ethics of Animal Biotech

CyborgsA company called Backyard Brains has developed a neuroscience learning kit for home or classroom—the RoboRoach—which, according to their advertisement, is “the world’s first commercially available cyborg.” For just under $100, anyone can purchase a kit to transform a living cockroach into a cybernetic organism that can be controlled by sending the animal remote signals via Bluetooth from an iPhone.

Another project uses a severed insect leg connected to electrodes to show the workings of motor and sensory neurons. The company’s slogan “Neuroscience for Everyone!” expresses the educational approach of cofounders Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, whose goal is to create interest in the study of the brain and the nervous system, particularly among school-age students.

But not everyone is excited to see insects being transformed into robotic slaves, or children participating in experiments that require severing a cockroach’s leg. It is understandable that some may have a feeling of distaste when they hear about the surgical procedure involved in removing the roach’s antennae and carefully inserting the electrodes that will control the movement of the animal remotely. On their website, the company willingly shares some of the criticisms they have received in relation to their projects, such as: “There are better ways of teaching neuroscience that do not use animals,” or “This enables and encourages kids to harm animals.” In response, the company cites peer-reviewed papers on the importance of hands-on experiments, explanations of their recommended procedure for anesthetizing subject insects, and reminders that their projects are learning tools as opposed to toys for entertainment.

In her 2013 book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, science journalist Emily Anthes discusses numerous potential benefits of animal biotech research, but she also brings out some of the ethical dilemmas involved: “We are heading toward a world in which anyone with a little time, money, and imagination can commandeer an animal’s brain. That’s as good a reason as any to start thinking about where we’d draw our ethical lines.”  

Society seems to be gaining great benefit from animal biotech research. Cures for human neurological disorders and bionic prosthetics for individuals with missing limbs are just two examples of areas where science is making headway of late. The fields of study that lead to improvements in quality of life for ourselves and our loved ones are easily justified in relation to the cost, but as Anthes points out in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, this type of research often "puts animal welfare and human welfare in conflict.” In the same interview, Anthes also refers to ongoing research that looks into using cyborg insects with altered brains and neural systems as remote drones for the purpose of surveillance and for scouting out potentially hazardous conditions.

The follow-up question in all of this is Where do we draw the line ethically? When do we cross the line between being good caretakers of living resources and exploiting or forcing our will on them?

As it pertains to human relationships and in a broader sense to the world around us, the Bible teaches that care and dignity should be afforded in the interactions we have with all around us, and it prohibits oppression and exploitation (Exodus 22:21–22). It is important for us to consider whether our undertakings may cross this important line.  

BRANDON SEXTON

Tags: ethics and morality, biotech, animal research