A mouse with an ear growing on its back: an example of bioengineering.

Photo courtesy AP

Building a Better Housecat

The term "hypoallergenic" means that the likelihood of an allergic reaction is decreased. Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration requires no proof of any claims of a product's hypoallergenic properties [source: FDA]. This holds true whether the product is a pillowcase, cosmetic or cat.

Allerca says that it has tested its cats on people with known pet allergies. When presented with an engineered cat, the test subjects showed no symptoms of their allergies. This same group of people was also presented with non-Allerca cats as a control. These cats did produce allergic reactions among the test subjects, the company says. In what the company deems the "rare event" of a customer suffering an allergic reaction to one of its cats, Allerca offers a one-year guarantee, promising a full refund [source: Allerca].

So how did Allerca do it? At first glance, one might think the company bioengineered their hypoallergenic cats. Bioengineering is the process of creating something with active cell growth through an artificial process, such as growing a human ear on a lab mouse. Bioengineering can also mean tinkering with the genetic makeup of a living thing to produce a desired result.

Allerca avoided any bioengineering process, however. Customers who want their hypoallergenic cat to come in rainbow polka dots or a nice Malcolm plaid will have to wait a few more years. Instead, the process Allerca uses is a form of selective breeding -- mating only those animals that possess desired traits. Through selective breeding, desired traits are promoted and undesirable traits are bred out of the family line. It looks like the most high-tech part of Allerca's kitties is the Microchip Identifier implanted in each one.

Though the company remains vague about the specifics of the selective breeding program that produces its hypoallergenic cats, Allerca does say that it achieved success through genetic divergence. This is a natural process found in evolution. Take, for example, the separation of humans from chimps. Humans and chimps still share 99 percent common DNA, and scientists believe that it was just a single reproductive trait among males that caused the divergence between our species and chimps [source: Cornell University].

When this split between man and chimp took place, a genetic divergence occurred: One species evolved into two. What the Allerca scientists undertook was slightly less dramatic than the evolution of man from apes. The company isolated the gene that produced the Fel d 1 glycoprotein. Using what it calls bioinformatics, it looked for the cat breed that would most likely genetically diverge from the rest of the breeds in the production of Fel d 1. It appears that Allerca simply sped up the process of genetic divergence within the British Shorthair breed through selective breeding. In other words, the company did what nature would most likely have done over time, but more quickly.

The hypoallergenic cats don't appear to have suffered any genetic damage or mutations from the selective breeding process. Allerca says that its cats still produce the Fel d 1 protein, but that the cats produce a version of it with a different molecular weight that simply doesn't produce allergic reactions in humans [source: Allerca]

So what happens when an Allerca-brand cat interbreeds with common cats in its new neighborhood? Not to worry. All breeding is done in a tightly controlled environment, overseen by Allerca, and each kitten arrives at its new home spayed or neutered.

For more information on cats and genes, read the next page.