Originally published in the Boston Globe, 9/24/2000, p. F06.


Art imitates science

TIME AND AGAIN, geneticists have made
attempts to reach out to society for help and
understanding as the science of genetics
heads into deeper ethical waters. The scientists want
lawmakers, clergy, judges, primary-care doctors,
journalists, and John Q. Public to know what they are
up to and what choices we will face as they learn more
about the genetic building blocks of life. If they are
going to play god, they don't want to do it alone.

Artists might even contribute to the discussion, but
that's when the give and take can get weird, as it has in
the case of the bunny that glows in the dark. An artist
from Chicago, Eduardo Kac, thought it would be
provocative to have a dog bred with a gene for
fluorescence that would make it glow. He couldn't get
a dog, but scientists in France agreed to put DNA
from a fluorescent jellyfish into the fertilized egg of a
rabbit. The bunny, Alba, now emits a green glow
under black lights of the sort used in night clubs.

Kac has succeeded in confronting the public with the
fact that researchers are doing astonishing things in
moving genes from one species into another. In the
case of fluorescence, researchers insert such genes
into the tumors of laboratory rats or mice, letting the
scientists watch the growth or shrinkage of the tumor
without doing surgery.

But for all the drama of Kac's experiment in
''transgenic art,'' as he calls it, the end does not justify
the means. No one can know whether the fluorescence
causes Alba pain. Admittedly, it might also cause the
rats and mice pain, but that at least can be balanced
against the gains in medical research.

There is also the risk that Alba will get free, multiply,
and start a line of rabbits that are fluorescent and
perhaps aberrant in some other way as well. One of
the gambles of fiddling with a gene is that we often
don't know what else it does. The classic example is
the gene that causes sickle-cell anemia - it also offers
protection against malaria.

Because of concerns like this and others, a committee
of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science issued a report last Monday advising against
making any inheritable genetic changes in human
beings. The report called for establishment of a
special committee to monitor and oversee any research
that wanders into ''designer children'' territory.

Kac describes his transgenic art as ''based on the use
of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic
genes to an organism, to create unique living beings.''
When university scientists do experiments of this
kind in the United States they must first get
permission of review boards. Whatever value his work
has in awakening the public to genetic issues, Kac is
crossing a line from art to the rogue science that
causes him concern.

This story ran on page F06 of the Boston Globe on 9/24/2000.

© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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