Two bunnies were recently born glowing green. They’re not radioactive—they carry jellyfish genes. If you’ve never read about animals genetically modified to glow, this may sound bizarre, edgy, sci-fi. It’s not. Scientists have been genetically programming animals to glow for years. The story here is that genetically modified glowing organisms carrying genes from another species aren’t news. That’s amazing.
The bunnies were born in Istanbul, Turkey. Researchers at two Turkish universities used a technique developed by scientists from the University of Hawaii to inject a jellyfish gene that produces the glowing protein into rabbit embryos in the lab. The scientists implanted embryos in the mother, and two of six bunnies were born carrying the gene.
Regulars here at Singularity Hub will know this story well. We’ve written about glowing monkeys, puppies, and most recently plants, when Singularity University company, Genome Compiler, launched and funded a viral Kickstarter to grow glowing arabidopsis plants and roses.
Genetically engineering something to glow may seem frivolous. And some suggest modifying something cute, like a bunny, grabs headlines for “underfunded scientists” more than anything else.
But the research has a concrete purpose. For one, it proves genes can be shuttled between species and passed down to offspring. By choosing an obvious physical trait, like a green glow, scientists can more easily tell how successful their technique is and how well it spreads. Further, by repeating the process over multiple species, they can hone the technique.
Perhaps in the future, genetically modified organisms could be made to display surprising, beautiful characteristics—an Avatar-like garden of glowing plants, for example. More practically, the Turkish scientists hope to introduce genes to produce medicine in milk. But first, we’ll have to hash out the ethics of genetic manipulation—a debate that’s already underway.
The scientists behind the glowing bunny study say the modifications don’t harm the animals. Their lives aren’t altered in any discernible way, and they’ll live a normal lifespan. But a representative of PETA, an animal rights organization critical of the work, noted that, “Behind the cute photos, there’s a lot of suffering.”
Indeed, regulatory cost is one reason such research often takes place outside the US. According to Stefan Moisyadi, the University of Hawaii scientist who collaborated with the Turkish team, “Animals have so many rights now that it is insane. So the cost to do it in the US is extremely prohibitive. They want to stop you. That’s why we’re going abroad where regulations are a lot more sensible.”
Recently, Kickstarter banned genetically modified organisms as rewards to backers after the glowing plant campaign kicked up controversy over whether dissemination of genetically altered seeds could have unforeseen consequences, such as the uncontrolled spread of the plants.
Omri Amirav-Drory of Genome Compiler said their arabidopsis seeds are unlikely to cross-pollinate in the US and expressed disappointment about the rule change, though it won’t affect their project.
Discussing the ramifications of reprogramming living things is a futuristic-sounding conversation that couldn’t be more contemporary. Wider use of genetic engineering techniques is not an “if” but a “when.” And if the current dispute over genetically modified foods is any indication, arguments will be fierce.
But perhaps when research moves past glowing flora and fauna and into production of cheap and efficiently produced and disseminated medicines and vaccines or a measurable reduction in genetic disease—the real world benefits will be more obvious.