Clive Cookson

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)

Clive Cookson

The flu strain that is spreading from Mexico and causing alarm about a possible pandemic has generally been called “swine flu” by health authorities, including the World Health Organisation.

But pig producers and animal health experts understandably dislike that term. Not only does it give pigs a bad name (and incidentally damage consumer demand for pork products) but also, they say, it is inaccurate.

In fact the H1N1 virus responsible for the outbreak has not been linked directly to pigs, in Mexico or anywhere else. The virus has not been isolated from any animal apart from humans, though virologists surmise that it may have originated in a pig.

Like birds and people, pigs can act as a “mixing vessels” in which different viruses swap genes and produce a new strain. The Mexican virus appears to contain porcine, avian and human genetic components.

The Paris-based animal health organisation OIE proposes calling it “North American flu”, to reflect its geographical origins. After all, the last pandemic, in 1968, was caused by “Hong Kong flu” – and the great 1918-19 pandemic was “Spanish flu”.

For me, North American flu is too much of a mouthful. I’d prefer “Mexican flu”.

Clive Cookson

The exhibition hall here at the European Future Technologies Conference in Prague is awhirr with robots.

A robotic lamprey from Italy swishes elegantly around a small pool while a salamander walks around outside the water. A few metres away a humanoid baby called Now, created by a Slovenian-German collaboration, is taking its first steps – falling from time to time but gradually learning from experience how to keep its balance.

And displaying Gallic sophistication, French robots are demonstrating tasks that will be needed if machines are ever to serve as intelligent home companions – and servants – for people. One serves a drink while another, topped with a chef’s hat, prepares the ingredients for a ham and cheese omelette.

All these are experimental robots, requiring intense care and attention from their human creators to keep going. Their successors, which will need to be far more robust and durable, will not be ready for commercial application for 10 to 20 years.

Research into intelligent robots, with some of the mental flexibility and learning ability of natural organisms and even people, seems be undergoing something of a renaissance. The field is beginning to recover from a period when it suffered from public disillusion – and therefore poor funding – in the wake of excessive claims for robotic intelligence during the 1980s.

The EC Future and Emerging Technologies Programme, with a budget of €100m a year and rising fast, is a prime source of new money for European robotic researchers. They still lag well behind the Japanese in hardware and “mechatronics” – the mechanical and electronic engineering of robots – but may be ahead when it comes to the software for artificial intelligence.

Japan has a long-standing cultural affection for humanoid robots, symbolised by the 1960s television series Astro Boy that inspired many Japanese robotic researchers now in middle age to work in the field.

The western world, in contrast, has a deep suspicion of robots, dating back to Karel Čapek’s science fiction play Rossumovi univerzální roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots) premiered in Prague in 1921. R.U.R – a great success in translation between the wars – introduced robots to the world. It is not a happy story: the robots rise up against their human creators and kill them all.

Europe is showing signs at last of overcoming this historical legacy and learning to love the prospect of intelligent robots.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

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.