Transgenics goes wild for luminous critters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 August, 2004, 12:00am

This week's subject is a superman with the eyes of a hawk, the smile of a dolphin and the translucent skin of a jellyfish. So what is new? Well, one day this could actually be true, thanks to the rise of transgenics.

Transgenics means forget the dictates of Mother Nature. It means that man can play God and splice and dice genes in whatever combinations he likes.

The result could be worse than the vilest cockroach or sofa you have seen. But so far, for some reason that puzzles me, most of the animals emerging are merely luminous versions of the standard models. Perhaps the bio-technicians responsible take science fiction author Isaac Asimov's view that there is but a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.

Or maybe, like my niece, they just like stuff that glows in the dark.

My favourite luminous mutant is a mouse put together by Carnegie Mellon. The mouse marries green fluorescent protein (GFP) with the gene c-fos, which turns on when nerve cells are activated.

The result is more than just pretty: it gives scientists a tool that can be used to highlight, in living brain tissue, one neuron activated in response to an animal's mood.

This could trigger the development of targeted drugs that directly affect brain cells involved in neurological diseases that warp behaviour, learning and perception.

Contrast Mellon's mouse with Alba, the rabbit with a jellyfish gene installed by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research for conceptual artist Eduardo Kac. Alba is just a bioluminescent bunny. It has no practical benefits at all unless you happen to be a short-sighted fox.

The same would appear to apply to the fluorescent chicken created by a South Korean national research team. The scientists injected GFP into chicken embryos to light them up. So what?

Well, apparently this experiment does have an ulterior motive: the scientists hope to obtain biomedical materials such as cancer-fighting enzymes from eggs laid by transgenic chickens.

Tinkering with the potential of poultry seems like a growth area, but genetically modified (GM) fish christened Frankenfish by the reptiles of the press are already everywhere. The breed hogging the limelight is the Night Pearl zebra fish devised by Taiwanese company Taikong Corp. The Night Pearl shines thanks to the genetic input of a jellyfish.

Other Frankenfish include: super salmon, modified to grow to twice the size of their natural counterparts; and Medaka, small, Japanese freshwater critters spliced with silk moth genes to give resistance to germs.

I googled 'transgenic germs' but nobody is officially admitting to manufacturing these. I did, however, find transgenic goats concocted by Nexia Biotechnologies in Quebec. Nexia adds just one human gene to 55,000 goat genes. Sadly the result does not resemble the mythic satyr - it just looks like a goat.

The point of this project is hush-hush. However, instead of trying to recreate ancient demons, the scientists claim to be producing vital human proteins which some people lack.

Other altered animals include pigs, sheep, mice and - of course - that customer for all kinds of genetic abuse: the fruit fly.

Scientists are experimenting with plants too. Coming soon to your kitchen table could be souped-up versions of squash and maize, and you may be snuggling up in bed in the not too distant future with sheets of transgenic cotton.

The fear is that, within every strapping GM plant, there lurks a Triffid determined to take over the world with its 'jumping genes' or 'transposons'.

The prospect of luminous bunnies breeding out of control and turning warrens into labyrinths of light seems appealing. Standard-issue fauna and flora can look drab when you have been playing in cyberspace - none compare with the freaks you encounter in chat rooms.

Soon, Technopedia predicts, some strange snakes, cats and dogs will be prowling your neighbourhood.

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