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Buff outside; genetically altered inside

Remember last month when I was struggling to regain the ground I’d lost? Without even trying, I’d picked up five pounds and was forced to resume a strict regimen in order to get back to my target weight range. I’ve made progress but still have a few pounds to go.

After two years of conscientious effort, I confess to a certain longing for a magical solution.

Isn’t there a pill we could safely take that would help us shed pounds? Or curb an unmanageable appetite? Isn’t there a way to turn fat into sleek muscle without the time and effort of exercising?



You know the expression “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might just get it”? Perhaps to our detriment, as a result of genetic tinkering, our wish may come true.

Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times columnist, recently reported on a research breakthrough that could change the form of warm-blooded species, including humans.




Kristof writes about recent advances in genetic engineering of cattle in which scientists have genetically blocked the production of myostatin, a substance that curbs muscle growth. The result: overmuscled cows without a speck of fat – and all this without exercising.

The cows look like what Arnold Schwarzenegger would look like if he were from the bovine species. For your own peek at the future, you can look at Belgian Blues at http://www.nytimes.com/kristofresponds. The photograph is laughable if the implications weren’t so serious.

When the same genetic engineering was tried on mice, an increase of 15-30 percent in size was noted. Also importantly, the middle-aged over-muscled mice didn’t lose strength as they aged.

The genetic research was originally intended to help two groups – people suffering from muscular dystrophy, and seniors suffering weakened muscles as a result of aging.

But once available, do any of us believe genetic engineering will be limited to those two groups? If steroids are a problem, imagine what the availability of genetic engineering would do to sports? Monday Night Football will become a contest between giants.

Wouldn’t it be tempting to undergo a painless procedure and bypass a lifetime regimen of eating carefully and exercising regularly?

Wouldn’t men find the magic solution hard to resist, given our culture’s emphasis on masculine strength? I’d like to think I wouldn’t succumb to a quick fix, but I’m not certain.

The implications for future generations stagger the imagination. Would over-muscled athletes be the norm and people who refuse to change their genetics be freaks? We currently have medical problems with two-thirds of us being overweight. Would those medical problems lessen if the majority of us were trim giants? Or would we create other problems?

Kristof describes a boy who, through an accident of nature, has the human form of the “Belgian Blues” genetic mutation. At age 4, he is already setting records for weight-lifting with his extraordinary muscling.

Where will it stop? Probably not with the human race. Wouldn’t we want super-sized chickens so eggs would be larger? Wouldn’t we want bigger pigs so hams would double in size? Wouldn’t sheep be super-sized so farmers could harvest more wool?

We all know what happened to the tomato when it was re-engineered genetically. Commercial tomatoes are thick-skinned and frequently tasteless. Would human genetic engineering produce the same unsatisfactory result?

Spared by advancing age the opportunity to tinker with my own genes, or alter in utero the genes of my offspring, perhaps I’m better off than I know. Given my ambivalence, I don’t even have any useful advice for the next generation.

At least for the foreseeable future, for better or worse, I’m stuck with eating carefully and exercising regularly. To quote Popeye, “I’yam what I’yam.”

ooo

Carole Carson is a fitness and nutrition advocate from Nevada City. E-mail her at beltink@earthlink.net or write her at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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