Paul T. Toran


Transgenic Methods : The Illuminating Power & Controversy


 Transgenic methods are awesome tools and have unbounded potential.  The proven methods that allow humans to created new organisms that would otherwise never occur in nature are a living example of the power of transgenic technology.  However, along with the abilities that a transgenic method presents come responsibility and heated controversy.  Many times genetically altered organisms and products that are exposed to the public are not noticeable or easily labeled as a product of transgenic technology.  As a result, unless it is brought to their attention, the public for the most part would never know they were consuming or handling a genetically modified product.  To some people the uncertainty and unnatural origins of genetically altered products elicit a fear and at times distrust in science that creates such products.  Not all genetically modified products are indistinguishable at first glance.  There are some products of genetic modification that are quite distinguishable and unnatural at first sight.  It is very interesting to see that some products of genetic manipulation are intolerable to people while others are embraced with open arms.  This paper is going to investigate a three products of genetic modification that exude unnatural tampering of life and the differences between how the public eye has perceived what transgenic science which have treated them. 

Bioluminescent, phosphorescent, florescence, things that glow in the dark such as fire flies and jellyfish are natural creations that invoke curiosity and amazement.  Creatures that are able to produce their own light are very interesting and most people enjoy looking at the spectacle.  Fireflies and jellyfish are able to produce their own enzymes, which allow them to survive in there respective environments.  Jellyfish, for example, use their bioluminescent capability to attract their prey in the deep abyss where sunlight cannot reach.  The jellyfish uses its fluorescent properties for a practical purpose, to catch food.  However, what sort of practical purpose could bioluminescence serve for a common rabbit? What about a glowing orchid or a phosphorescent yeast that is used to produce glowing champagne?  It actually sounds more absurd than anything.  In fact it sounds like some far-fetched story out of a science fiction novel, but that is not the case at all.  Glowing rabbits, orchids and yeast are a reality and have been for a decade or more.  The phosphorescent properties of the EGFP (Dorbrila, 2000) in jellyfish in addition to both luciferase and luciferin in fireflies have been used in the lab for years.  Fluorescent tags are used to bind to specific proteins and determine that protein’s localization in a cell.  The three examples of genetically altered organisms being presented are rabbits, orchids and yeast.  These organisms have recently sparked mixed reactions among people ranging from vehement disdain to open embracement.  The methods that were utilized for each of these different projects were slightly different but the end result was basically the same.  What is it that makes one of these transgenic creations more acceptable than the other?  In the case of the glowing “GFP” (Dorbrila, 2000) (Green Fluorescent Protein) bunny it would seem that the gratuitous premise behind the entire event caused and uproar.

The “GFP” bunny, Alba, was the brainchild of artist Eduardo Kac.  Kac worked in cohesion with French scientists Louis Bec, Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunet and asked the group at the France’s National Insistute for Agronomic Research to genetically engineer a rabbit that possessed the ability to glow.  At least Kac claimed to have come up with the idea, but it later came out that the lab had already made some glowing rabbits for a previous experiment involving embryos and how embryonic cells divide in embryos.(“RIP: Alba, the Glowing Bunny”, 2000)  Nonetheless, the artist wished to display his “transgenic art” which had three different phases. (Dorbrila, 2000)   The first phase would be construction of the glowing bunny from which he needed help from the French geneticists.  Secondly, the living art that is “Alba” needed to be displayed to society at large so that society could confront transgenic technology and see it as a reality embodied in the form of a glowing rabbit.  The last part of the work was to take home Alba so that his family could nurture it and accept it by loving it and caring for it.  Kac sees the third part of his art as a performance art where he is symbolically accepting transgenic technology in a three-dimensional real medium.  Unfortunately for Kac and the world, only two thirds of Kac’s vision became a reality.  Alba the “GFP” bunny was created successfully in February of 2000 by utilizing a method called zygote microinjection.  The French group took the genetic coding for both EGFP and luciferin and put them it into plasmids.  Then the genetically engineered plasmids were injected into fertilized pronuclei rabbit embryos before the embryonic cell was able to divide.  The injected embryos were then incubated overnight and on the following day the normal two cell embryos were placed into a foster mother rabbit.  This way every cell in the rabbit’s body was able to produce both the EGFP and luciferin, which gave the rabbit the ability to glow. (Dorbrila, 2000)  The “GFP” bunny was only able to glow in the presence of ultra violet light.  There are many pictures of the glowing bunny that shows that the entire rabbit is emitting a green aura, but the fact of the matter is that only the inside of the ears, eyes, nose and skin under the fur possess the capability to glow since hair cells are dead and are incapable of producing any proteins.  Kac claims that his pictures were taken with a yellow filter and that would account for any extra fluorescence. (“RIP: Alba, the Glowing Bunny”, 2000)  Alba was displayed to the public in May of 2000 in San Francisco, but that was the last the Kac was ever allowed to see of Alba.  The project of “GFP” bunny was intended to spark controversy in the public eye and raise questions about genetic manipulation, and afterwards Alba would be taken home with Kac.  However, there was so much bad press and protest against Alba’s creation that the NIAR became hesitant to release the rabbit back into the custody of Kac. (“RIP: Alba, the Glowing Bunny”, 2000)  Many in the science community condemned the project for being frivolous and playing God without a valid reason.  Since the NIAR had already been using glowing rabbits, they did not want worse publicity would endanger the completion of their experiment because of some art experiment.  Alba died recently in August of 2002 in the lab at the NIAR of natural causes.  Kac did indeed invoke the response that he was looking for but unfortunately for him the response was at the cost of the entire project.  Kac slipped up when he stated that Alba served no scientific purpose.  First, it wasn’t true that Alba didn’t serve a scientific purpose since it was originally created for an experiment in embryonic development.(“RIP: Alba, the Glowing Bunny”, 2000)  The biggest problem by saying that Alba didn’t serve a scientific purpose is that Kac effectively said that Alba’s natural existence was altered not for medical benefit, but rather just to make a rabbit glow.  It may be true that Kac did not see any importance in the initial scientific purpose for which Alba was created, and the Kac only saw Alba’s artistic importance.  Though unfortunately for Kac the art world does not have authority to regulate genetic manipulation, other scientists and ethicists justify genetic manipulation of a living animal only if it benefits medicine.  The view on manipulating plants is very different, since plants are not seen as having a consciousness.  The genetic altering of orchid for a glowing aesthetic pleasure differs from the entire Alba controversy.

Professor Chia Tet Fatt from the National Institute of Health in December of 1999 was the first person to successfully create a bioluminescent orchid.  This feat was accomplished by the use of particle bombardment technology.(“Hybrid Orchids”,2000)  The genetic code for luciferase and luciferin was annealed to tiny little beads.  The beads were loaded into a particle bombardment gun, which was basically a regular gun that was modified to shoot thousands of tiny beads instead of bullets onto specific part of the plant, which consist of were both somatic and germline tissues.  The beads were able to break through the cell walls of the orchid’s cells and deposit the genetic coding material for luciferase and luciferin into the nucleus of the cell and incorporate it into the genome.  The particle bombarded orchids that showed luminescence after particle bombardment therapy were selectively mated so that the offspring would show more luminescence.  This was not an easy procedure and as a result the first two rounds of experimentation yielded no bioluminescence in any of the orchids. (“Hybrid Orchids”,2000)  However, the group that was working under Fatt accomplished their task using an orchid from the genus Dendrobium named Dendrobium White Fairy #5.  The Dendrobium White Fairy #5 worked the best because its white pigment was able to best reflect the bioluminescence created from the luciferase and luciferin. (“Hybrid Orchids”,2000)  The whole orchid including the stem, leaves, petals and roots emits the greenish-white light.  The intensity of the greenish-white light ranges from 5,000 to 30,000 photons per second. (“Hybrid Orchids”,2000)  There was no protest from this experiment by the public and instead of protesting, a large scale production of the orchids was started and bioluminescent orchids can be bought off of a website.  The orchid business is extremely popular and glowing orchids sell for no less than two hundred thousand dollars apiece.  Since orchids generally don’t live longer than three year the buyer must keep buying from the inventor every three years.  This type of genetic manipulation is purely for aesthetic appreciation and nothing more.  The production of bioluminescent orchids serves no practical purpose, and still there was no significant protest to their creation.  Why then was there such an uproar when the same thing was said about Alba the “GFP” bunny?  The first reason was that Alba was a living-breathing animal and there is more of an emotional attachment to a cute bunny rabbit than a flower, albeit a pretty flower.  What can be observed from this comparison is that the issue is not so much with the unnatural aspect of genetic modification as much as it is with the cruel and unusual defacement of something that a person feels emotion towards.  The same genetic modification was done to the two organisms and one elicited a negative response where the other elicited a positive response.  In fact, people are paying large sums of money that effectively support the genetic manipulation of orchids.  The only difference between the two genetically manipulated events is the medium in which it took place.  The last example of genetic manipulation is slightly different from Alba the “GFP” bunny and glowing orchids.

The company Prolume is a biotech company that specializes in genetic manipulation involving bioluminescent genes like luciferase and EGFP.  The company currently is making toys that glow in the dark such as squirt guns that leave bioluminescent stains and champagne that will glow in the dark on New Years Eve.  Prolume genetically modifies the yeast that is used to ferment the champagne so that it makes luciferase.  This is accomplished by agro bacterium gene transfer, which is done by inserting the luciferase gene into the genome of the agro bacterium at which point the agro bacterium incorporates its own genetic code, including the luciferase gene, into the genome of the yeast.(“Luminous Champagne, Scented Photos and Other Innovations”, 1999)  However, if the luciferin were added to the champagne immediately the champagne would stop glowing by the time it would be consumed.  To avoid this a luciferin tablet is place in the bottle such that when the bottle is opened the tablet drops in and activates the luciferase to create glowing champagne.  So what is the point with this example?  There isn’t any protesting in Pittsburgh where Prolume is based.  There isn’t any apparent medical benefit that is coming from the manipulation of yeast cells in order to make them glow for more enjoyable New Year’s binge.  In fact the National Institute of Health gave Prolume a three hundred thousand dollar grant to support their work.(“Glowing Drink that May Pinpoint Cancer Cells, 2000)  Well, the second part of the company’s larger plan is to make a presurgical drink that a cancer patient would ingest that will cause cancerous cells to fluoresce which will aid the surgeon in making sure that all of a tumor is removed. (“Glowing Drink that May Pinpoint Cancer Cells, 2000)  Nonetheless, a very important question still remains.  Does the end justify the mean with regard to strict ethical standpoints on genetic manipulation?  Is it right to tamper with an organism’s natural form to make a profit and perhaps develop a medical tool that will help cancer patients?  Apparently the National Institute of Health seems to approve of Prolume’s ideals and so does the public because glowing products are being bought. 

What is it that determines whether one sort of genetic manipulation is more moral or ethical than the next?  In the three examples that have been described transgenic methods were used to create organisms that have the exact same genetic alteration that is clear for everyone to see.  A rabbit, a plant and yeast cells were genetically altered solely to glow.  What is the practical application of this for any of these organisms to glow? Does it increase their fitness?  There is no advantage whatsoever for any of these organisms to glow in the dark.  Actually, the ability to glow in the dark is most likely detrimental to the fitness of all three of these organisms.  Are there any potential medical benefits to making any of these three-organism glows in the dark?  According to Eduardo Kac there is no scientific benefit for the creation of Alba, (“RIP: Alba, the Glowing Bunny”, 2000) there is clearly no medical benefit for glowing orchids, and only a possible medical benefit for the creation of a bioluminescent yeast cell.  Yet there is only opposition towards the “GFP” bunny and none towards either the glowing orchids or yeast.  Why is this so?  The ethicists whom make decisions on genetic manipulation say that genetic manipulation is only unethical when preformed on living animals when there is no clear medical benefit.  Are the ethicists correct?  The same genetic alteration is being preformed three different ways for the same goal, which is aesthetic pleasure.  It appears that the only real distinction is made with living animals, and when a living animal is the subject of genetic alterations, not the alterations themselves.  Perhaps the ethicists have defined the correct political limitations that should be put on genetic manipulations. Whether they have identified truly objective criteria that are in the best interest of science and the field of genetics is more questionable.



Tan Yan Jun Charlene.  “Glowing Orchids”  15 March 200. The Glowing Orchid. 12 December 2002.


“Hybrid Orchids”  2000. The Bioluminescent Orchid. 10 December 2002


“A Glowing Success”  New Agriculturalist 10 December 2002


Dorbrila, Peter (ed), Kac, Eduardo.  “ GFP Bunny”  Kibla.  Maribor, Slovenia. 2000.


“A Glowing Contraversy”  9 September 2000.  12 December 2002


“Rip: Alba, the Glowing Bunny”  12 August 2002.  10 December 2002,1286,54399,00.html


“Glowing Drink that May Pinpoint Cancer Cells”  19 January 2000.  London Times. 

12 December 2002.


“Making Glow-in -the-Dark Squirt Guns to Raise Money for Science”  7 January 2000.  10 December 2002


“Luminous Champagne, Scented Photos and Other Innovations”  6 December 1999.  11 December 2002