Dog training is poised to become much more interesting. In addition to the usual tricks (sit, lay down, heel, look adorable), “glow” may soon be added to the repertoire. A team at Seoul National University located in South Korea has successfully created a new breed of beagle capable of fluorescing under ultraviolet light (see video at the end of this post). It sounds odd, but it certainly is a novel way to find Sparky: if he runs off, just head for the nearest glowing shrubbery.
Although some species can naturally create light (such as fireflies and some planktons), in recent years scientists have been keen to develop the trait within animals that do not glow on their own accord. Genetically engineered luminescence is generally regarded as the first step in gene alteration, allowing scientists a clear indication of whether or not their experiment succeeded. Fluorescent animals have been bred in the laboratory before, but this is believed to be the first instance of a dog being given the gene.
The transgenic canine named Ruby Puppy was cloned using a technique called retrovirus-mediated gene transfer. This allows scientists to introduce a foreign gene into the host animal’s DNA. The gene that was introduced into Ruby Puppy’s DNA was for the creation of a fluorescent protein that, upon contact with ultraviolet light, emits a red glow. A genetically modified virus was used to inject the new genetic code directly into a stem cell nucleus. That nucleus was then inserted into a de-nucleated egg cell and placed in a surrogate mother. Give it a little time and voila: an eating, sleeping, pooping, glowing (literally) puppy.
Ruby Puppy glows because the new protein is responsive to ultra-violet light, which excites the electrons within the protein bonds. The electrons then relax into their initial state and release the energy as a red light. Since each and every cell in Ruby Puppy is programmed to create this protein, there are millions of them all over the place, which creates a stunning red glow. For the designer bio-luminescent buffs out there, red is not the only color from which to choose. The first isolated glowing protein was a green color from the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. Since then, scientists have experimented with replacing different molecules within the protein structure, allowing for the creation of a number of different colored photo-luminescent proteins ranging through the visible spectrum including blue, yellow, cyan, orange and, of course, red.
Although fluorescence may seem like just a novelty, it has many useful properties. Scientists are just figuring out how to tag all of an animal’s cells, as is the case with Ruby Puppy, but for years have been able to tag specific cells (tumors, bacteria, and other bad stuff) with these luminescent molecules. Once perfected, luminescent cells may go beyond medicine and be used in any number of applications, from tracking animals in the wild to distinguishing between people. Soon, there might not be a need for a sex offender registry. If the creepy neighbor from down the street walks out in the sun and starts glowing an ethereal purple, maybe it’s time to find a new home? That, of course, may be a violation of basic human rights, but what about a new form of body art?
Luminescent tattoos may soon become the new trend in the body art world. New proteins could possibly be synthesized to glow from radio wave input so, wherever a favorite radio station is playing, the tattoo will light up. Take that one step further (for all the nerds and geeks out there) and have a tattoo that is responsive to wireless internet signals. Enough with those wi-fi finders on keychains, why not just look down at your “sick tat” and see if you can sign onto a wi-fi network?
Ruby Puppy was genetically engineered from stem cells and thus was luminescent from birth, but for these outlandish ideas to become reality, scientists would need to be able to alter genetic material after the organism has grown to maturity. This capability, however, is not just over the horizon, but is happening now. Earlier, Singularity Hub reported on using gene therapy to restore vision to blind patients as well as curing the bubble boy disease. It is simply a matter of time before even more devastating and wide-spread genetic disorders go the way of the dodo.
It will be some time before gene therapy makes super-heroes or luminescent cells replace tattoos as the next form of body art, but the time of fluorescent technologies aiding in early diagnosis of dangerous diseases and cancers is already here. Gene therapy is slowly breaking its way out from the laboratory and into the hospital, making doctors more able to cure genetic disorders. Ruby Puppy is a proof-of-concept step towards the future of genetic engineering, as one could assume that the dog lies somewhere between lab rat and human, genetically speaking. The next logical step is to repeat the experiment on primates and then on to humans. As the science of gene therapy matures, there is no telling how many diseases may be cured or how many childhood super-hero fantasies may be brought to life.