Study: Glowing Monkeys Pass On Gene To Babies

A  marmoset with glowing feet from an added gene it inherited.

Shown here next to a photo of its glowing feet, the marmoset baby Wakaba has inherited a fluorescent gene that was added to one of its parents' DNA. When observed in ultraviolet light, the skin on the soles of its feet glow green. E.Sasaki et al/Nature hide caption

itoggle caption E.Sasaki et al/Nature

For the first time, scientists in Japan have shown that a gene that makes monkeys glow green can be passed on to their offspring. Scientists say this shows that they can breed monkeys with genetic modifications, which could be useful in studying human diseases.

The research team used a virus to carry a gene for a green glowing protein into 80 marmoset embryos, says Hideyuki Okano of Keio University School of Medicine, one of the researchers on the team.

"When these embryos are returned to the uterus from the surrogate mother marmoset, the pregnancy was established," says Okano.

Five babies were born, and four had the gene in their body. But the real triumph is that when they reproduced, their offspring had the gene, too. The results are described in the journal Nature.

For years, scientists have been able to routinely create mice that have human disease genes. But for many diseases, mice are too different from humans to be a useful model. Monkeys are biologically closer to humans, but it's been a lot harder to change their genetic makeup.

Searching For A Model For Human Disease Genes

The glowing gene in and of itself doesn't do anything. But the new research in monkeys shows that an added gene can be inherited, something that has never been shown in primates before. Now it should be easier to generate groups of monkeys with genes for diseases like Parkinson's.

Gerald Schatten, at the University of Pittsburgh, was part of a team that made the first genetically altered primate about a decade ago, a rhesus monkey named ANDi. But, he says, ANDi has never been interested in mating.

Another research group created monkeys with the Huntington's disease gene, but those monkeys haven't reproduced either. Schatten says the work in Japan is a stunning milestone in the development of monkey models of human disease.

"It suggests that the nonhuman primate world might be able to follow in the footsteps, or maybe the paw prints, of the mouse world," he says, in terms of being able to create useful laboratory models of human diseases.

Schatten says some people may fear this will increase the number of monkeys used in medical research. But he thinks it might allow scientists to work with fewer monkeys because they will more precisely mimic human diseases.

Another concern often raised is whether similar genetic techniques could be used on human embryos to make designer babies. Schatten says scientists generally see that as a line they won't cross.

"We don't support doing any genetic modification in human embryos," he says.

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