Japanese scientists have created the world’s first transgenic primates, breeding monkeys with a gene that made the animals’ skin glow a fluorescent green. This can lead to better animal models of human diseases for better and faster pre-clinical work. It can also lead to transhuman people and genetic enhancement of humans. It is germline genetic engineering of animals that are closer to human than previous animals.
In a study published in the British journal Nature, a team led by Erika Sasaki of the Central Institute for Experimental Animals at Keio University reported on experiments on common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus), a small monkey native to Brazil.
They introduced a foreign gene, tucked inside a virus, into marmoset embryos that were then nurtured in a bath of sucrose.
The gene codes for green fluorescent protein (GFP), a substance that was originally isolated from a jellyfish and is now commonly used as a biotech marker. An animal tagged with GFP glows green when exposed to ultraviolet light, proving that a key gene sequence has been switched on.
The transgenic embryos were then implanted in the uterus of seven surrogate mother marmosets.
Three of recipients miscarried. The other four gave birth to five offspring, all of which carried the GFP gene.
In two of these five, the GFP gene had been incorporated into the reproductive cells. A second generation of marmosets was then derived from one of the two.
It could eventually lead to lab monkeys that replicate some of humanity’s most devastating diseases, providing a new model for exploring how these disorders are caused and how they may be cured.
“Great advances in pre-clinical research can be expected using these models,” the team said.
But other voices warned of a potential ethics storm, brewed by fears that technology used on our closest animal relatives could be turned to create genetically-engineered humans.