Another Step in Genetic Engineering: Glowing Primates

The primate family tree seems to have gotten a bit brighter lately.  Earlier, Singularity Hub reported on Ruby Puppy, the genetically engineered glowing dog, and now the puppy has been one-upped by a team of Japanese scientists who have created a gaggle of glowing marmosets.  Monkeys are just steps away from humans on the evolutionary ladder.  Does that mean that we’ll soon be glowing too?

Glowing Primates: Terrible at Flashlight Tag
Glowing Primates: Terrible at Flashlight Tag (credit Erika Sasaki - Hideyuki Okano / AP)

The marmosets were given the glowing gene in much the same way as Ruby Puppy but, instead of glowing red like the transgenic dog, the primates glow green.  The genetic mutation of these marmosets holds many of the same implications as a glowing dog, including the potential study of many human diseases as well as the ethical dilemmas that come with the territory.  The marmoset itself was targeted for study because it reaches sexual maturity faster and has more offspring, allowing experiments to take less time from breeding to data collection.

Aside from the usual perks of having a genetically engineered pet/lab experiment, the plethora of scientists credited with writing the report believe that this is the first time that the offspring of genetically engineered primates are able to inherit the new trait.  This was proven when three out of the four second-generation marmosets bred in the experiment were capable of glowing under ultraviolet light.  The presence of this gene in the sperm and egg cells of the marmoset could not only lower the cost of each animal, but also increase the yield.  Whereas only a few marmosets matured to adulthood from the 900 original embryos, tradition breeding could allow for a much better survival rate.

Giving animals a glowing gene is simply an easy way of testing if a genetic modification worked.  The next step would be to recreate human illnesses in the animals so different medications can be tested.  Of course, with any of these types of experimentations there are ethical issues.  Sure, it’s not too bad to make King Kong glow a little bit but the animal rights groups will get a bit ticked off when he is engineered to have Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.

Eric Kleiman of In Defense of Animals is already outraged, saying that “this is a step backward, not a step forward.”  Other notable quotes include: “Why aren’t scientists harnessing the power of the human genome or any of the other technology that has exploded over the last 10 years?”   Although these alarmist exclamations prove Mr. Kleiman’s ignorance of what has in fact exploded in the last ten years and should not deter the progress of science, an important question is still raised: is it cruel to breed animals with specific diseases solely for the purpose of making human lives better?

There do not seem to be many grave concerns about cruelty towards the genetically modified lab rats that have been used for years.  But perhaps these cute, almost human-like monkeys evoke a greater amount of sympathy from animal lovers.  Ethical dilemmas aside, the number of genetically modified species are steadily growing and, in the not too distant future, humans will join those numbers with the hopes of eradicating diseases and genetic abnormalities.  Genetic engineering, like many other technological advances, will cause great ethical challenges that may be cause for rethinking the moral principles of humanity.  For now, we can just marvel at the glowing marmoset.  We’ll simply have to leave it to the scientists and lawmakers to figure out the rest.

Andrew Kessel
Andrew Kessel
Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.
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