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 Airplane’s hallucinogenic 1966 song, “White Rabbit,” but Alba’s co-creator, artist Eduardo Kac, holds much more lofty intentions for this glow-in-the-dark rabbit.
“[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.
Scientists Call Project ‘Frivolous’
Kac intended Alba’s 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 Kac’s 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.
“There’s nothing dangerous about it, as far as we know,” says Woodland Hastings, a biologist at Harvard University and co-discoverer of the jellyfish’s glowing gene and its function. “But the project is rather frivolous. There are many more important things you can do with these genes.”
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 Alba’s body.
This isn’t 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 it’s inactive, no fluorescence appears.
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 successful.
Hasting adds that in the future the technology may also help guide surgeons as they cut away cancerous tissues 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 Kac’s rabbit project “interesting, but not too important.”
Variations of the jellyfish’s 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 don’t take advantage of an animal’s life.
“I think creating this rabbit a silly and wasteful thing to do,” says Lange.
Kac’s 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 it’s important to bring what people in white coats do into the public forum.”