Glowing green monkeys

Nature, the great British science journal, has offered the animal rights movement a new cause. “Posters that feature an endearing marmoset face peering out of a cage and a caption denouncing experiments will make for an emotionally appealing campaign,” it says in an editorial.

Of course Nature, which publishes papers involving animal research in every issue, does not advocate such a campaign.

But its editorial is warning about the implications of an experiment described in this week’s edition. Japanese scientists have created transgenic marmoset monkeys that glow green in ultraviolet light – and passed the added gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) on to their offspring.

Although several research teams have tried to produce transgenic monkeys that transmit their new genes to subsequent generations, Erika Sasaki of the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki and Hideyuki Okano of Keio University are the first to report success.

GFP, derived originally from jellyfish, is a standard “marker gene” in molecular biology, which scientists use to demonstrate that genetic engineering has worked.  While glowing green marmosets have little practical application, the experiment shows that transgenic monkeys could be important research tools for investigating human diseases, as transgenic mice already are.

The Japanese researchers transferred 80 transgenic marmoset embryos to surrogate mothers. Five healthy offspring were born, which passed the GFP gene on to their own offspring.

Dr Okano told a media briefing that the next step would be to generate transgenic monkeys that carried genes for brain disorders, starting with Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease. Marmosets would be better vehicles for studying such diseases than mice because their brains are much more like those of humans.

Nature supports such research, as does the FT, so long as it offers sufficient benefits, in the form of more sophisticated “models” of human disease, and the experiments are carried out responsibly.

But the researchers must be ready to deal with the broader ethical questions involved and to be open about their use of animals. As Nature notes, that may not be easy for Japanese scientists, who freely admit their dislike of public confrontation.

E.Sasaki et al 2009

Five transgenic marmosets, with feet glowing green in UV light (inset). (Credit: E.Sasaki et al 2009)

The world of research

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.