Glowing Rabbit Sparks Controversy
by: Susan Rubinowitz
Turn a special light on the fluffy white rabbit called Alba
and she glows bright green, a feat of genetic engineering
thats sparked a storm of controversy among medical
ethicists and animal rights activists.
By day and under normal lighting conditions, Alba looks
like any other member of her species, but place her under
a black light like those used in dance clubs and she
becomes an otherworldly apparition. Every pore of her
body - paws, whiskers, and especially eyes emits an
eerie green glow.
Alba was born with that quality because, as an embryo,
she was injected with DNA from a phosphorescent
jellyfish. And she is now isolated in a French laboratory
because of protests and questions about what would
happen if she reproduces.
New World of Technology
Its all the work of Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac, who
views Alba as a symbol of the brave - and scary - new
world of biotechnology. He had planned to use her as
part of an exhibition that would raise questions about
genetic transformations and relationships among species. Then, Kac said, Alba would live
with him, his wife and daughter as his familys first pet.
The bunny artwork is an attempt to symbolically reflect on the impacts of biotechnological
advances as they move into the social arena and private life, Kac said.
Whatever his intentions, Kacs critics accuse him of acting on a kind of Frankenstein fetish.
By imposing his superior will on an unknowing being, hes using the powerful and evolving
science of genetic engineering for an unworthy purpose, some scientists say.
``Making these manipulations of other living beings and organisms to prove a point really has
no kind of medical or scientific purpose to it, and even if there is a medical or scientific
purpose, we have to be careful what we do because theres potential cruelty to it, said Dr.
Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College. ``In
some ways its a lack of respect for living forms its almost an act of violence in a way.
Steve Zawistowski, the ASPCAs science adviser, who holds a Ph.D. in animal behavior and
genetics from the University of Illinois, added, ``I expect artists to be sensitive, and the
scientists to be the cold-hearted bastards, but this is manipulation of life for individual
expression. My great fear is that people will start ordering this bunny for Easter.
Injected With Jellyfish DNA
Scientists working with Kac altered Alba by injecting her embryo with a green
phosphorescent protein found in jellyfish, and then returning the embryo to the mother
rabbits womb. The protein has been widely used by medical scientists who inject it to track
the action of chemicals on diseased organs.
Kac, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has said that he
first wanted to create a glowing dog that people could play with and look in the eye, but
was dissuaded by the difficulties of the task. He said that it was easier to give Alba her green
glow, and that he worked carefully with top European scientists to make sure that the
process did not affect her health or behavior.
In no way would I have participated if there was any possibility that there would be anything
harmful happening here, Kac said, although critics question whether anyone knows for sure
whether Alba faces any ill effects.
Kac also said that Alba provides a forum for understanding that crossing the border of the
natural and the artificial being is not necessarily a problem. In some cases, it could well be
a solution, Kac said, envisioning the possibility that genetic engineering might one day
eliminate genetic illnesses that afflict particular breeds of dogs.
This is not to say that all of biotechnology is good and there should be no critique, Kac
said. Many things are truly appalling.
Outcry Over Genetic Engineering
To Kacs critics, the question now is whether Alba will turn out to be the first in line of animals
that are genetically engineered to meet human specifications so called pets of the future.
They also worry that similar scientific efforts will desensitize people to the consequences of
genetic manipulation and help sell the idea of genetic engineering on humans.
``People have suggested this might be reasonable to do on people to enhance certain traits
of the human, Newman said. Scientific research isnt devoted to changing the living world,
the ecosystem. Its to study it.
Kac said that he expects to travel to France in December to visit Alba at the lab where she
was created in the hope that he can win her freedom to display her in his artwork. Animal
rights activists hope not.
``If theres anything positive about this case, it will be that it will highlight the fact that,
whether or not an animal is genetically altered, shes still an animal, said Lisa Lange, a
spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. ``I think that, although he
originally may have had good intentions, that this potentially sets up a dangerous situation.
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