Glowing Bunnies: Why They Matter

Their creation is part of genetic research aimed at mass-producing medication and treating hereditary illness. And they seem to be in good health, don't worry.
(University of Hawaii School of Medicine)

The transgenic bunnies were born last week. They are expected to live long, productive rabbit lives. They are not evil; they just glow bright green under a black light. They do not portend apocalypse, but rather a potential for great good.

The road to their creation began years ago. Dr. Stefan Moisyadi works with transposing DNA vectors at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, where glowing mice were created in the 1980s. Now he's at the head of the rabbit project—though this time the birth took place in Istanbul, as part of a collaboration with Turkish researchers.

SHARK300200.jpg(University of Hawaii)

The idea is that scientists inject genetic material into rabbit embryos, and they want to see that it becomes a part of their genetic makeup. The glowing green is not an end in itself, but a marker that their technique is working. The protein that creates the glow comes from jellyfish DNA (which was injected into the rabbit embryo).

Moisyadi told Hawaii local news channel KHON, "These rabbits are like a light bulb glowing, like an LED light all over their body. And on top of it, their fur is beginning to grow and the greenness is shining right through their fur. It’s so intense."

Light bulb, LED light—the opportunities for creative imagery are numerous. It's like an overflowing bin of potential words.

Since the jellyfish gene codes for a natural protein, Moisyadi et al. don't have reason to suspect that their rabbits are harmed by the experimentation. “They live just as long as normal animals do. I can tell you from the mice [which have since been conducted at places like Caltech] they show no ill effects.”

SHARK300200.jpg(Mayo Clinic)

If we learned anything from Rudolph (the "red-nosed" reindeer), the transgenic bunnies may be socially excluded at a young age, but the experience will be formative, and they will grow to be celebrated by the rabbit leader.

In 2011, the same technique created glowing kittens as part of an HIV research project. In a collaboration between the Mayo Clinic and Yamaguchi University, the researchers reported in the journal Nature Methods that the cats not only glowed but, more importantly, were resistant to feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

They also showed no signs of ill health or evil behavior.

This sort of genetic manipulation can be applied to research on genetic diseases and, as they prove that it works in larger animals, Moisyadi hopes, "create bio-reactors that basically produce pharmaceuticals that can be made a lot cheaper."

"Let's say for some patients who suffer from hemophilia and they need the blood clotting enzymes, we can make those enzymes a lot cheaper in animals with barrier reactives rather than a factory that will cost billions of dollars to build," Moisyadi told Hawaii news outlet KITV.

Still international collaborations are standard for this sort of research. “At home, there is this hysteria that transgenic animals should not be used for anything," Moisyadi said. His eyes are on the future, though, which could include glowing transgenic "sheep, cows, and even pigs.” The first lamb is expected in November.

For more on the ethical debate, check out Sophie Cocke's story today at Civil Beat.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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