Originally published in San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, October 8, 1999, p. B1, B13.

Artist Proposes Using Jellyfish Genes to Create Glow-in-the-Dark Dogs


Artist Eduardo Kac stunned several hundred colleagues last month when he proposed using genetic engineering to create a dog with fluorescent fur.

``The audience was silent,'' said Kac, a 37-year-old artist who works in Chicago.

Mind you, Kac wasn't addressing some crowd with, shall we say, Rudolph Giuliani sensibilities. He broached his fluorescent canine proposal at Ars Electronica, a 20- year-old international gathering in Austria that brings artists together to explore the realm where science intersects aesthetics.

Yet even this sophisticated crowd seemed numb as Kac outlined his plan -- so far theoretical -- to extract a harmless protein from a jellyfish and insert it into the dog's genome so as to make its fur glow with a green light.

In a telephone interview, Kac explained why he considered the creation of a transgenic dog -- that is, a dog deliberately altered with genes from another creature -- to be art.

``In fact" , he said, "it is the process of living with the dog that is the real artwork. I'm not interested in creating genetic art objects. What I want is to create a happy, healthy transgenic social subject. Society as a whole has not even become aware of the vocabulary of this new wave of research and technique. We cannot leave this vocabulary in the hands of the few, the politicians, the people from the business world, the scientists. Other members of society must participate in the wider debate.``The audience was barely able to frame a question,'' Kac recalled. ``There was only one woman brave enough to say something. She was clearly shaken.'' That woman was San Francisco computer programmer Ellen Ullman, author of ``Close to the Machine,'' a jaundiced look at modern technophilia.

``Initially, I was fascinated by his ideas, but I had this growing sense of unease at the arrogance of his proposal,'' said Ullman, just recently returned from the Ars Electronica. ``It is one thing for an artist to experiment on a canvas, but it's entirely different to experiment on a living creature.''

She recalled questioning Kac about how this alteration would affect the dog, and she was not mollified by his assurance that fluorescence wasn't harmful. ``I wasn't just thinking of the harm to the creature,'' she said. ``What does it do to a society to casually create fluorescent dogs?''

Beau Takahara, an artist with the Tech Museum in San Jose, also heard Kac's lecture. It was Takahara who reported this provocative exchange to the Coalition of Artists and Life Forms, a group formed by San Francisco videographer Dale Hoyt to explore the art potential of biotechnology.

``I felt like Kac was really crossing some territory artists hadn't crossed before, that no one had crossed before,'' Takahara recalled.

Kac's work is based on recent scientific developments. Scientists at Stanford University, for example, have been creating mice and rats that glow since 1995.

Led by Professor of pediatrics Christopher Contag, the Stanford scientists discovered how to take the gene that causes fireflies to emit a faint yellow glow and splice this gene into the tumor cells of experimental animals.

As the tumor grows, so does this yellow glow that a camera can detect through the skin of the lab animal. Contag designed the process to see how tumors responded to drug treatments without having to kill the lab animals and study their remains. If a test drug shrinks a glowing tumor, the result would be visible through the rodent's skin.

About four years ago, Contag spun this idea off into Xenogen Corp., a private startup based in Alameda. The company says its technology could lead to faster and cheaper drug testing and spare a lot of lab animals' lives.

Xenogen, which is run by microbiologist Pamela Contag (Christopher Contag's wife), earlier this year raised an impressive $11 million in private financing from a variety of venture funds, led by S.R. One Ltd., the venture capital arm of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals.

So art, in this case, imitates life.

Which makes Kac's proposal, and the reaction to it, all the more fascinating. If we can create fluorescent mice and rats in the name of research, why not companion animals that emit a warm glow when we stroke them in the dark?

The broader question, of course, is how far should we take this new power we're developing, to mold other creatures -- not to mention ourselves -- to suit our plans or whims?

That is the debate Kac sought to provoke when his proposal (posted at www.ekac.org) urged artists to ``increase global biodiversity by inventing new life forms.'' Isn't that playing God, I asked?

``What sort of God do you envisage, a Judeo-Christian patriarch, an enigmatic Buddha, a host of animist deities?," he asked.

``I wouldn't know how to play God,'' he replied, ``because I wouldn't know what it is.''

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