Serious research or simply catastrophic?


As scientists announce that they have bred cats that glow in the dark, Conor O’Nolan explains the reasoning behind the fluorescent felines

A group of American researchers working in the Mayo Clinic (a non-profit medical research and practice group in the US) has bred three cats with a special distinction; when exposed to light of a particular frequency they glow a fluorescent green colour. The green colour is caused by a gene taken from jellyfish which was inserted into the feline genes.

Animals with unusual glowing colours are nothing new in science; flies, rabbits, mice and pigs have all been cloned and had the fluorescent colouring gene inserted into their DNA. Even earlier this summer, scientists in South Korean cloned a Beagle puppy with similar colouring genes added during the cloning process.

These kittens were cloned in an atypical way, because traditional cloning has a high failure rate. Sex cells for both genders used in the experiment were acquired from cat gonads that were discarded after the routine neutering of cats. These cells were then used to prepare embryos which had the genes inserted into them, before the cats were bred using in vitro fertilisation. The process that they used was so successful that almost all of the cats born in the experiment had the genes intended.

As cute as the research might seem, there are genuine scientific reasons for carrying out this work. The colouring gene was inserted alongside an antiviral gene from Rhesus monkeys during the manipulation of eggs. The experiment was conducted in an effort to develop treatments for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which is the virus that causes cat AIDS. The antiviral gene that was inserted has been shown to cause a resistance to immunodeficiency viruses in other animals. The brightly coloured gene was inserted to help track the success of gene transfer.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is the cause of AIDS in humans, is very closely related to FIV. It is therefore hoped that this research could not only help to find a treatment for the virus in cats, but perhaps also lead to a related treatment for humans.

The experiments from this research project are still not complete. While the feline cells in isolation show a heightened resistance to FIV, the cats themselves are yet to be exposed to the virus. Cat lovers and scientists alike can now just hope that this story will come to a conclusion that is both valuable for the future treatment of FIV and optimistic for the glow-in-the-dark kittens.

The paper documenting this research, ‘Antiviral restriction factor transgenesis in the domestic cat’ was published in Nature Methods, a science methodology journal which all UCD students have access to through the library website.