MAKING THE BUNNY GLOW
IS THIS GENETICALLY ALTERED RABBIT ART OR AN ABOMINATION?
Oak Park artist Eduardo Kac set out earlier this year to use
genetic engineering in the creation of something utterly,
shockingly new: a living being whose sole reason for existing is
The result was Alba, a rabbit that glows like a jellyfish.
French researchers working with Kac injected genes similar to
those in fluorescent jellyfish into the embryo that became Alba.
Although she looks normal at first glance, Alba emits an eerie
green glow when placed under a deep blue light.
For Kac, who says his brand of "transgenic art" is meant to spur
a dialogue about biotechnology, Alba is an artistic triumph. But
for genetic researchers hoping to earn trust from a wary public,
the glowing bunny is a big headache.
That's because Kac's seemingly frivolous project violates the
bedrock principles that have long guided genetic research.
It's not that being green hurts the rabbit, or that this bizarre
project inevitably leads down the slippery slope toward cloning
Josef Stalin. But in using the rabbit genome as an artistic
canvas, Kac has chipped away at the tenuous, tacit contract
between researchers and the public that allows DNA research to
A pillar of that trust is the principle that such work should
benefit people--maybe not immediately, but someday--or at least
add to the vault of human knowledge. Such ground rules are
especially important in genetic research, which evokes
deep-seated fears that power-hungry scientists are tampering with
nature. People put those fears aside in hopes of a huge payoff
down the road, in treatments for diseases or more hardy food
But Alba benefits no one but Kac, who has reveled in the
inevitable controversy over the bunny's creation. His impishness
seems to validate a common suspicion about genetic research: that
it is merely a plaything for mad scientists just waiting for any
excuse to make Frankenstein-like travesties.
"The picture it conjures up is of human beings using DNA kind of
like we used to think God used clay in making humans," said
George Annas, a professor of medical ethics and law at Boston
According to Kac, it is justification enough that his project
hurt no one, not even Alba. Most experts agree that the protein
responsible for Alba's odd sheen--called green fluorescent
protein, or GFP--is basically harmless.
"As a result of my work, a lovely rabbit was brought into the
world," said Kac, an assistant professor at the School of the Art
Institute in Chicago. "Was that justifiable? Yes."
But if that's the standard, scientists might as well supply
artists with whatever lovely mutants they desire. You want a
winged hamster to sit for a sculpture? You got it. A cat that
doubles as a night light? No problem.
The idea of toying with an animal's genes to make a statement
does not sit well with Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology
at New York Medical College.
"It's also possible to make a statement by torturing a baby and
saying, `Deal with it,' " Newman said. "I think this has raised
important questions, and that's good. But I hope it's a one-shot
In fact, Kac hopes to do more transgenic artworks, though he said
he draws the line at manipulating human genes for art's sake.
Here, at least, Kac and the scientific world agree. Although
gene-therapy trials targeting specific human cells have been
under way for more than a decade, scientists have not yet taken
the next step, to create transgenic babies who would pass on
their modifications to future generations. There is a consensus
that changing the reproductive cells that pass on traits in
humans is still beyond the pale.
A report released last week by the American Association for the
Advancement of Science concluded that such genetic modification
"cannot presently be carried out responsibly on humans."
Even if work such as Kac's remains limited to animals, however,
it could have a harmful effect on legitimate genetic researchers
by distorting public perceptions.
For example, lost in the hype over Kac's plans are the amazing
insights that GFP, the glowing protein in the bunny, has made
possible. Since the gene that produces GFP was isolated five
years ago, scientists have learned to use it as a luminous tracer
in cells or whole organs.
As a result, researchers have caught glimpses of real-time
changes within cells and embryos that would have been invisible
"It's been a revolution in cell biology," said Benjamin Glick, a
researcher in molecular genetics and cell biology at the
University of Chicago.
Yet the productive applications of GFP are practically unknown
compared to the controversy over Alba, who has made headlines in
Germany, France, Canada and the United States.
It is entirely possible that an incensed public will call for
laws to put curbs on transgenic art, said Sheldon Nahmod, a
constitutional law expert at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
But the constitutional right to free speech means you can't just
ban the artistic manipulation of genes. In order to withstand
legal challenges, a curb on genetic engineering would have to
cover a broad spectrum of uses, including legitimate research.
"If Kac is successful in drawing public attention to this work,
the result could be regulation strong enough that many kinds of
transgenic research could be prohibited," Nahmod said.
Already, widespread distrust of biotechnology has held back its
potentially helpful uses--and not without some reason. On Friday,
Kraft Foods recalled one of its taco shell brands because the
shells contained genetically altered corn not intended for human
consumption. Kac's antics add heat to the debate, but no light.
Kac, however, argues that as transgenic research becomes more
common, his form of art could actually help dispel overblown
fears about the field. His artistic plan calls for eventually
moving Alba from the laboratory in France to join his family in
Oak Park, in part to show that she is basically a normal rabbit,
not a genetic monstrosity.
He's right, in a sense. Humans have been changing the genes of
plants and pets through selective breeding for thousands of
years. Biotechnology is often less painful for animals than such
common practices as declawing or ear-cropping. And humans visit
more drastic physical changes upon themselves in the form of
"In this context, I think Alba is not that shocking anymore,"
said Christiane Paul, a curator of new media arts at the Whitney
Museum of American Art in New York.
But genes are not just another smudge on an artist's palette.
Modern genetic techniques give individuals the power to create
new forms of life at a single stroke--practically in the course
of an afternoon.
Regardless of how well-meaning an artist is, should one person's
creative instincts be allowed to dictate the hereditary fate of
an entire species?
Some artists don't think so. Ed Wesley, a photography instructor
at the School of the Art Institute, said he believes Kac's work
is a pointless exercise.
"This is why people nowadays think of artists as being kooks,"
Wesley said. "He says he wants to open a dialogue, but that's a
dialogue that could be opened by anybody with a couple of
six-packs. You don't need a green bunny."
Kac says he is committed to bringing art and science closer
together. Paul of the Whitney Museum said Kac's approach recalls
that of Renaissance artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da
Vinci, who were fascinated equally by the universal laws of
science and the universal truths of art.
Kac believes the modern relationship between art and science is
too unbalanced. He doesn't tell genetic researchers what to do,
after all, so why should they presume to limit his work?
Yet the rules for artists and scientists have changed since
Raphael and Leonardo's time. Artistic freedom has expanded to the
point that artists need no societal approval for their work, and
sometimes court scandal. At the same time, the incredible power
of genetic engineering and other modern technology make it more
important than ever that society hold scientists accountable for
what they do.
As awesome as modern biotechnology can be, even more frightening
is the thought that it could become an instrument of creative
provocateurs who see themselves as accountable to no one. Artists
who truly want to unite their work with science may have to learn
an unfamiliar concept: self-restraint.
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