It's Not Easy Being Green
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
In a laboratory in Paris, Alba the albino rustles and sniffs. She is gloriously white and plump, her eyes in photographs a piercing red, her ears long and supple. Granted, she is just one experimental bunny among many, her beauty obscured by her scientific purpose.
But she is coveted from afar.
There's this man in Chicago who wants Alba badly. "All I want is for Alba to live with us and have a loving family," says Eduardo Kac.
But it's not likely that Alba's going anywhere--not across the ocean, not even into the backyard gardens of gay "Paree." She's not just any rabbit destined for leaf lettuce and a cedar-chip bed. She's different.
Alba glows in the dark.
Well, glows in the dark isn't quite right; more precisely, she glows when placed under an ultraviolet light. She glows proudly, zealously--a most peculiar lime green from her furry feet to her flanks to the tip of her nose. Her eyes gleam like twin green flashlights. She is the rabbit of a different color. She is early '90s neon surfer-wear. She is a spectacular zoot suit. She is twitching psychedelia. She is one foxy lady.
Envy Alba's ignorance! She knows not the controversy that surrounds her existence. She is the young product of a most unnatural union between a rabbit embryo and something called green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which comes from a certain jellyfish.
She is also the flash point for the continuing debate over a brave new world that increasingly looks like a sci-fi novel, where altering the living seems as effortless and trivial as an early morning nose-blow, where human cloning seems just over the horizon.
Eduardo Kac--an intense, cutting-edge artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago--claims he conceived of Alba and spurred scientists to create her for the sake of art. He wanted to use her living being as a canvas, if you will, to generate debate about the future of genetic engineering.
Art?! you exclaim. Greening a living thing as art?!
But wait. First know this: At the French government lab, the National Institute of Agronomic Research, there are other rabbits that have been injected with the GFP gene in embryo--about 10, according to the project's lead scientist, gene specialist Louis-Marie Houdebine. Over the past five years, GFP has been used in plants and animals around the world because its glow-ability helps scientists study cell proteins to better understand organs, tumors and certain diseases. For example, scientists in New York are using "green mice" to study bone marrow.
GFP can be injected into stem cells or embryos, says Gordon Hager, a scientist at the National Cancer Institute who uses GFP to study hormone receptors. GFP is nontoxic, scientists say, and does not appear to have any disruptive effect in its hosts.
But what about Alba? Kac maintains that she serves no scientific purpose. He says he spurred the laboratory to create Alba specifically so he could showcase her at an art exhibition in Avignon this summer (she didn't get to go) and then take her home. He says he'd first imagined a dog that glowed, but that proved too difficult to arrange. Instead, he and a friend called around until they found a lab willing to make a rabbit that glowed.
The lab's Houdebine--apparently contradicting statements he made last month to the Boston Globe when he backed up Kac's story--says Kac is mistaken. He says he created Alba--born last January--for the purposes of experimentation by mating one rabbit already injected with GFP with a normal animal. Such matings allow scientists to observe embryonic development, and as an adult, Alba can be used to generate more embryos. Houdebine says Alba was never meant to go home with the artist. He says he did intend to lend the rabbit to Kac for the exhibition in Avignon, but backed down when his higher-ups balked.
What's more, Houdebine adds, the photo of Alba that Kac has mounted on his Web site (www.ekac.org) looks greener than she really is. Kac says he didn't alter it.
" 'Alba' doesn't exist," Houdebine says. "For me it's rabbit number 5,256 or so." In any case, these are not pets, Houdebine says. "We can't have affection for" them.
Ah, but Kac does. He visited Alba once, before this controversy started. Now, he says, he feels he is responsible for her fate.
"Since then it has become sort of a custody battle," says Kac, 38 (his name is pronounced "Katz"). Not a formal custody battle, but--from the sound of it--one of beseeching. Kac says he plans to go to France in December to plead his case to the lab.
But it's not just a custody battle. It is also a philosophical one. Because if Kac did "conceive" Alba, and she serves no scientific purpose, her very essence could be troubling. How dare some guy make a rabbit glow! Some ethicists argue that altering a living animal's nature for no medical benefit damages the public perception of 21st-century science and threatens to demean the animal's life.
"You're begging for trouble because what that says is, science will take very powerful technology and fool around with it," says Arthur Caplan, director of the center of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "It makes us think that what we have is technology in the hand of fifth-graders."
But Kac says Alba is no mere exercise in oddity. An assistant professor of art and technology, Kac's chosen mediums are biological and technological art. The science he uses is so complicated he must sometimes enlist experts' help. The theories behind his work are dense as pound cake. His art has come in the form of virtual reality; on another occasion, mutating bacteria; and in one case, a "live, bidirectional, interactive, telematic, inter-species sonic installation" measuring the microvoltage in a plant as it responds to the singing of a canary across a long-distance telephone line.
Kac says measuring the plant's microvoltage was a means to show that it, too, has consciousness of a sort.
Which leads us back to Alba.
"My colleague in New York told me that we are about 30 to 40 percent similar in the genome to the mustard plant," Kac says, adding that he finds such a link "humbling."
But instead of emphasizing similarities like this one, "genetics is now being used to talk about differences," Kac says. "All these notions of determinism--the gay gene and the Jew gene, the intelligence and the obesity gene." Kac says he wanted to create Alba to move the questions surrounding genetic engineering into the art world. Alba could be an animal of the future, the familiar white bunny morphed with the uneasy spectacle of transgenesis.
And she was to be spirited away from the cold institute to live with Kac, his wife and his 5-year-old daughter. She was to get to know them, and they her. Or, as Kac phrases it: "Rabbits have a cognitive and emotional life that I wanted to highlight."
For now, alas, Eduardo Kac has only his memory of the first and last time he embraced Alba.
"It was incredible," he says. "It was one of those experiences in life that you can't prepare yourself for. Until I saw her and held her in my arms, up until that point it was expectation. . . . When I actually held her in my arms, then an emotional bond was established."
And what then? They played. Alba let Kac pet her. She did not seem frightened, but instead reveled in his touch. She was "gentle." She was "charming." And after two hours, he placed the green rabbit down for the last time.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company
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