The idea of scientists genetically engineering monkeys to glow in the dark sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi movie, but researchers in Japan have actually done it. According to an article in the journal Nature http://tinyurl.com/mo6bxd, researchers at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan have taken a gene which codes for the production of a protein called GFP – for green fluorescent protein – from a jellyfish. They inserted the gene into members of a small species of monkeys known as marmosets. The protein, once produced, causes the skin and hair cells of the monkeys to glow when exposed to ultraviolet light.
This is not the first time that genes have been taken from one species and transplanted into another. Transgenic animals and plants, as they’re called, have been around for decades. The GFP gene is frequently used for this because it is easy for researchers to see if the gene has been transferred and expressed. What makes this research especially significant is that the monkeys who received this gene were able to transfer it to their offspring. The offspring glow in the dark like their parents. The other thing that makes it significant is that this is the first time that this sort of procedure has succeeded in a species so closely related to humans.
Transgenic techniques have been used for quite some time on mice to produce specific lines of mice that can be used to study human diseases. For example, normally, mice can not be infected with polio http://tinyurl.com/9zwpk. They lack the type of surface molecules on their cells that would allow the polio virus to infect them. By inserting genes into the mice to produce the human surface molecule, researchers can create mice capable of contracting the disease. They can then breed large numbers of these mice. The result is an animal model that can be used to better understand and potentially treat a serious human disease.
The hope is that by using a species closer to humans, like monkeys, researchers can come up with better animal models, but many animal rights activists are alarmed that this simply makes it easier to use animals for potentially painful experimentation. Jarrod Bailey, a consultant to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was quoted by ABC News http://tinyurl.com/pej72h as saying, “There is a line ethically that people are uncomfortable with.” He went on to say, “People don’t want to see experiments done on chimpanzees, for example.” One factor that at least for now may severely limit such uses is that according to Forbes Magazine http://tinyurl.com/mwuuga currently it costs approximately $300,000 each to produce one of these transgenic monkeys.
There are also some ethicists who are concerned that using transgenic techniques on a primate so closely related to humans could open the door to eventually creating transgenic people. Dr. David King, from Human Genetics Alert, was quoted on Sky News http://tinyurl.com/m3aqnw, “I’m worried that these steps are being taken without any overall public discussion about whether we want to go down that road.” He continued, “We may find ourselves gradually drifting towards the genetic engineering of human beings.” However, many researchers are insisting that this is an important step in better understanding human disease. Mark Hill, a cell biologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia told BBC News http://tinyurl.com/o6kjal, “As always in this area of research, there needs to be a close linkage between the scientific work, ethical issues and regulatory guidelines.”