Mutant Rabbit Raises Controversy Over Genetic Manipulation
French genetic researchers created Alba for artist Eduardo Kac. Thanks to genes borrowed from a jellyfish, the albino rabbit glows green when placed under special lighting.
By Amanda Onion
Sept. 19 In regular light, Alba appears like any other furry
white rabbit. But place her under a black light, and her eyes,
whiskers and fur glow an otherworldly green.
She could have been a perfect prop for Jefferson
Airplanes hallucinogenic 1966 song, White
Rabbit, but Albas co-creator, artist Eduardo Kac,
holds much more lofty intentions for this
[Alba] highlights the fact that transgenic animals are regular
creatures that are as much part of social life as any other life
form, writes Kac on his Web site devoted to the rabbit project.
Kac is an assistant professor of art and technology at the
School of Art Institute of Chicago.
Kac intended Albas birth in February to spark a
debate about the project itself, and about the practice of manipulating
genes in animals for research. Then he hoped to adopt Alba and take her
into his home with his wife and daughter. Kac says the entire project,
which he has dubbed GFP Bunny (for green fluorescent protein
bunny) is designed to combine biotechnology, private family life and the
social domain of public opinion into a single furry symbol.
But so far, it seems Kacs first objective has overshadowed the others.
Scientists at the National Institute of Agronomic Research in France,
which created the rabbit for Kac, are hesitating to release the rabbit to him
and his family due to protests over its creation.
Animal rights activists claim the project is a needless and abusive
manipulation of an animal, while scientists who work with the fluorescent
proteins have dismissed the project as interesting but silly.
Theres nothing dangerous about it, as far as we know, says
Woodland Hastings, a biologist at Harvard University and co-discoverer
of the jellyfishs glowing gene and its function. But the project is rather
frivolous. There are many more important things you can do with these
The French scientists created Alba using a process called zygote
microinjection. In this process, the scientists plucked a fluorescent protein
from a species of fluorescent jellyfish called Aequorea victoria. Then
they modified the gene to make its glowing properties twice as powerful.
This gene, called EGFG (for enhanced green fluorescent gene) was then
inserted into a fertilized rabbit egg cell that eventually grew into Alba.
As the cell divided, the green gene also replicated and made its way
into every cell of Albas body.
This isnt the first time a mammal has been designed to glow. In 1997
Tokyo scientists added glowing jellyfish genes to mice. The mice,
however, were created for research purposes to provide animal models
for studying biological processes and diseases.
As Hasting explains, the luminescent jellyfish genes can be used to tag
certain genes or proteins. When that protein is active, scientists can detect
its fluorescence under a black light. When its inactive, no fluorescence
That kind of tracing ability allows scientists to watch the effectiveness
of potential drugs as they affect the body without using surgery. For
example, anti-cancer genes can be inserted with the glowing genes so a
light source is all that is needed to learn if genetic manipulation is
Hasting adds that in the future the technology may also help guide
surgeons as they cut away cancerous genes during surgery.
If you can make a particular gene glow, then you should be able to
see when and where a cancer cells is, he says. That can localize the
cancer and help the surgeon know where to cut.
Osamu Shimomura, a biologist at Woods Hole Marine Biological
Laboratory and one of the first to detect the glowing gene in Aequorea
victoria, is now working on developing variations of the gene for disease
research. He calls Kacs rabbit project interesting, but not too
Variations of the jellyfishs glowing genes have been used in another
relatively non-scientific application. In December, a company called
Prolume began marketing squirt guns loaded with replicated versions of
the genes. The liquid squirts like water, but lights up when it comes in
contact with a person, or any substance containing calcium.
Other researchers are working on developing glow-in-the-dark hair
mousse, ink and cake frosting. There is even preliminary research
underway to produce glow-in-the-dark beer and champagne.
Still, Lisa Lange, the director of policy and communications at People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, points out these other applications of
glow genes dont take advantage of an animals life.
I think creating this rabbit a silly and wasteful thing to do, says
Kacs supporters point out, however, that furry Alba has already drawn
attention to the often-overlooked, living creations of genetic research. And
that is just what the artist hoped would happen.
Regardless what you believe about his work at least it gives people
in the public a chance to react to what is going on in the scientific
community, says Laurie Rosenow, a fellow with Institute for Science,
Law and Technology in Illinois. Sometimes its important to bring what
people in white coats do into the public forum.
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