Chibimagic's Weblog

How Stuff Doesn’t Work

Posted on: January 29, 2009

I started listening to the Stuff You Should Know podcast (iTunes link) from HowStuffWorks. The episode they’re doing this week is “How Hypoallergenic Cats Work”, except it’s not. Background: there’s this company called Allerca that makes “lifestyle pets” aka cats that are hypoallergenic because they don’t make the Fel d 1 protein that causes allergies in humans.

The podcast mentioned how this wasn’t genetic engineering like that famous mouse with the ear on its back (picture from their article), except that wasn’t genetic engineering either. Allerca’s cats are more genetic engineering than that mouse, because that ear was basically plastic surgery. They implanted some cow cartilage and let the mouse’s cells grow around it, which they were able to do without rejection because a natural mutation left this strain of mice with almost no immune system. You don’t need to change genes to effect a visually striking change. (Here’s a more in depth explanation of what happened with the mouse.)

According to the podcast, these cats came about from selective breeding, after the company used some fanshy pants “bioinformatics” wherein they plugged genetic data into a computer, and it told them which breed was most likely to lose that gene. Yeah, that’s about as bioinformatics as me looking up “cat” on Wikipedia. Maybe they actually did use advanced biology techniques to get these cats, but from the way the podcast described it, Allerca basically made an educated guess and started breeding cats.

Then the podcast started talking about how even though Allerca’s cats might look like a normal British shorthair, it was actually “a different species” because what Allerca did was a “speciation event” and they were “creating genetic divergence” and then I groaned and stopped being able to listen. Just like people who remain lactose tolerant into adulthood are a different species, right?

It hurts to listen to someone be so wrong about something, especially about something so pervasive and imperative to life as biology. I think I’ve accepted that most people are going to suck at computers, so computer-suckiness is simply an inherent property of people. I haven’t gotten around to accepting that biology-suckiness is an inherent property though.

This episode makes me question the accuracy of every other article and podcast they’ve ever done. I guess they’ll be one of the ones getting cut as I have less time for podcasts. Anyway, here’s the accompanying article so that you don’t have to listen to their podcast to get the full misinformation.

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