Originally published on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 9/17/2000.
Sunday, September 17, 2000
Cross hare: hop and glow
Mutant bunny at heart of controversy over DNA tampering
By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff, Globe Correspondent
Eduardo Kac has held the pet of the future in his arms, and it is Alba, a white bunny that glows in the dark.
Kac, an artist who lives in Chicago, persuaded a team of French genetic researchers last fall to join him in an artistic venture featuring a living, breathing rabbit whose DNA is combined with that of a phosphorescent jellyfish. Alba appears normal, but, when illuminated with the kind of ''black lights'' used in nightclubs, she gives off an otherworldly green glow from every cell in her body: her paws, her whiskers, and especially her eyes. As word has slowly leaked out about Alba - who was supposed to ''interact'' with Kac in a faux living room as a piece of performance art, but is instead confined to her French laboratory after protests - it is bringing outcries from scientists and animal rights activists shocked at the idea that the powerful tools of biotechnology would be used for an art exhibit. And there is no way to know, they say, whether the animal is suffering, or what effect the mutant bunny would have on the ecosystem if she were to escape and reproduce.
But Kac, who will answer his critics at a public forum tomorrow in Chicago, said that the gathering fury is all a part of what he calls an ongoing experiment in ''transgenic art,'' a project whose aim is to create a character, at once ''loveable'' and ''alien,'' that society must confront.
''It is a new era, and we need a new kind of art,'' said Kac, 38. ''It makes no sense to paint as we
painted in the caves.''
When scientists completed a rough draft of the human genetic blueprint earlier this year, it was hailed as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science and medicine. Yet social critics say that the work of Kac, and a vanguard of others who are now exploring life as an artistic medium, is a sign that the breakthrough will be seen as a monumental cultural milestone as well. Just as man's first steps on the moon had wide reverberations in the realms of art, popular culture, and religion, so, too, will genetic engineering.
''This is a reminder of how some of the most controversial and far-reaching changes will have
nothing to do with medicine,'' said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. Genetics ''is going to profoundly change our philosophy, our society, our culture.''
The same techniques used to create Alba could also be used to fashion a line of glow-in-the-dark pets, scientists said. Modern dogs and cats, they added, are themselves products of a kind of genetic engineering, in the form of breeding by humans over thousands of years. But modern genetic techniques quicken the pace and expand the palette.
''In a sense, this rabbit is not any sillier than a Chihuahua,'' said Mark Hauser, a professor of
psychology and neuroscience at Harvard University, and author of ''Wild Minds,'' a book about animal psychology.
Kac and Alba remain apart while Kac tries to persuade the French government laboratory, called the National Institute of Agronomic Research, to grant him custody of the bunny. The scientist who created her for Kac, Louis-Marie Houdebine, said he doesn't know when, or if, Alba will be allowed to join Kac, but said that she is healthy, and even noted that she has a ''particularly mellow and sweet dispostion.''
In the meantime, other artists have joined in Kac's quest to use art to push biotechnology into the cultural sphere. On Sept. 9, a show, entitled ''Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution,'' featuring artists who use biotechnology, opened at a SoHo gallery. The show includes a set of cloned trees; an image created using bacteria engineered to produce colored enzymes; and a work called ''The Human Race Machine,'' a software program that allows gallery-goers to scan in their face and then shows how they would appear as another race - East Indian, Latino, Asian, Caucasian, and African.
This spring, Mass MoCA, a gallery in Western Massachusetts, opened a similar show called
Kac, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, said his motivation was to show that even transgenic
animals created in a lab have ''an emotional and cognitive life.'' Originally, he wanted to
commission a glowing dog that would then live with his family and that people could ''play with and look in the eye.''
But then Kac talked to Louis Bec, a French artist and curator, who told him it would be difficult to create a glowing dog, but that he should talk to Houdebine, director of research of the Biology of Development and Biotechnology Unit, at the National Institute of Agronomic Research. Houdebine agreed to become involved, and to let Kac use the genetically modified rabbit for an exhibit in the south of France coordinated by Bec called ''Digital Avignon.''
The technology that made Alba possible is widely available, scientists said. It is not unusual for researchers to use green fluorescent protein, which can be attached to particular cells, or used to trace the action of particular chemicals, to study how animals and tumors grow, and in tracking the workings of genetic diseases such as Huntington's.
Houdebine said his group had already been using rabbits in its research, but that he was intrigued by Kac's desire to involve the public, and had ''never considered'' whether an entire animal would glow in the dark. Seen under a bath of ultraviolet light, and looking through a filter, the rabbit's most striking feature is its brightly glowing green eyes, said Houdebine.
This spring, a delighted Kac traveled to meet Alba at the lab, 30 minutes outside of Paris, a trip that he said evoked in him ''a deep sense of responsibility.''
Disappointment soon struck, though, when the French institute's director heard of the plan: He forbade Kac to use the rabbit in his exhibit, and said that he could not take it home with him to Chicago, where Kac planned to ''bring it into his loving family'' - a wife and a 5-year-old daughter.
Kac said the old director has since left, and said, sounding like a father who has lost a custody
battle, that he still hopes to ''free Alba.'' He also maintains a Web site with a long manifesto on the ongoing ''GFP Bunny'' project, detailing man's history of domesticating rabbits and littered with references to Nietzsche, Kant, and other European philosophers.
Kac is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Even one of Kac's most passionate critics applauds him for drawing attention to what is now
being done in genetics research.
''It kind of turns the searchlights back on scientists,'' said Stuart A. Newman, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College who uses glowing proteins to track how animal limbs develop. ''There are some pretty awfully deformed animals in transgenic research, and scientists have sometimes done these things with no good theory behind it.''
Newman, who also serves on the board of directors of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Council for Responsible Genetics, will be one of the speakers at tomorrow's symposium, which is being held at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
GFP Bunny, Kac said, is actually his second work of transgenic art. The first, now on exhibit at the ''Paradise Now'' show, which is being held at a gallery called Exit Art, in New York, is called ''Genesis.'' In it, he translated a passage from the Book of Genesis into Morse code and then into a DNA code that was then injected into a bacterium.
The installation includes a Web site that allows people from around the world to look at the
bacteria, and whenever someone logs on, a strong ultraviolet light shines from above, mutating some of the bacteria.
The passage from the Bible, Kac explained, grants man dominion ''over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth.''
But the mutations introduced by the light modify the message, he said, ''rejecting it.'' We have
come to a time where we must stand in awe before the power and possibilities of nature, he said: ''It's an expression of humility.''
Globe correspondent Tom Haines contributed to this report from Paris.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 9/17/2000.
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