Glowing Bunny Sparks International Controversy
by Carrie Dierks
© 2000 Peregrine Publishers, Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Meet Alba. Shown here with Chicago artist Eduardo Kac, she looks like a typical albino
rabbit. But under ultraviolet light, Alba takes on a whole new look.
Alba is a transgenic rabbit-scientists genetically altered her DNA by inserting a jellyfish gene
that produces a protein responsible for the fluorescent green glow. She's also the center of a
custody dispute between Kac and the National Institute of Argonomic Research in France,
where Alba was born. Kac had approached the Institute about designing a fluorescent rabbit. At
the time he envisioned a three-part transgenic art project: first, the creation and birth of Alba;
second, public debate about the event; and third, Alba coming to Chicago to live with Kac and
However, animal rights activists and some religious leaders have denounced Alba's creators for
exploiting the animal and tampering with nature. Moreover, scientists who investigate legitimate
uses for the fluorescent protein criticize the practice of creating art by genetic engineering.
Because of the protests, the Institute has so far refused to hand the rabbit over to Kac. The
researchers also say plans to genetically engineer a fluorescent rabbit were underway long
before Kac approached them, as part of their research on tagging embryos with fluorescent
markers. The rabbit has made international headlines and has provoked a debate about the
ethics of genetically engineering a creature in order to make an artistic statement. In this sense,
at least, Kac's vision for transgenic art has been fulfilled.
The controversy over the mutant bunny has all but obscured the scientific significance of green
fluorescent protein (GFP), the chemical responsible for the green glow. GFP is found in
Aequorea victoria, a species of jellyfish. When these protein molecules absorb light of a certain
wavelength (in the ultraviolet spectrum), they then immediately release light of a longer
wavelength-in this case, bright green. This process is known as fluorescence.
Scientists first isolated the gene for GFP in 1995. When the gene is spliced into the DNA of an
embryo, the protein will appear in every cell of the new organism. GFP is completely harmless;
other than emitting the fluorescent light, it doesn't affect the organism in any way.
How is this useful to scientists? Cell biologists can genetically modify cells or embryos by
adding GFP, and then observe them under UV light. In this way, researchers might observe in
real time the effects of a new drug as it moves through the body, or facilitate tumor removal by
making certain cancer cells more visible. The scientists engaged in such pursuits hope that the
furor over Alba and transgenic art won't jeopardize future research.
#Onion, Amanda. Glowing Controversy, ABC News, Sept. 19, 2000.
#GFP Bunny. Eduardo Kac's essay about his transgenic artwork.
#GFP Applications Page, Wallace Marshall, Yale University.
#Manier, Jeremy. "Making the Bunny Glow," Chicago Tribune, Sept. 24, 2000.
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