WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2013 – Uruguayan scientists at the Animal Reproduction Institute have successfully engineered sheep to glow in the dark when exposed to certain ultraviolet light. While this may seem like a useless manipulation of the animal’s DNA, scientists claim to have a legitimate scientific purpose in creating these bizarre looking sheep.
The flock of nine lambs was born in October 2012 and are reportedly growing and developing like normal sheep- besides the fact that they glow green in the dark. Uruguayan scientists manipulated the sheep’s genes by adding green fluorescent protein, “GFP,” from the Aequorea Victoria jellyfish.
“We did not use a protein of medical interest or to help with a particular medicine because we wanted to fine-tune the technique,” said Alejo Menchaca, heading the research team and reportedly working beside Martina Crisp of the Pasteur Institute. “We used the green protein because the color is easily identifiable in the sheep’s tissues.”
According to Menchaca, the sheep spend as much time outdoors in the fields as normal sheep, perhaps in slightly better conditions. They are currently a little over six months old and have been raised by their mothers. The glowing flock is said to be “well looked after, well fed and very much loved,” in Menchaca’s words.
Why was this done?
No, the sheep were not engineered to make a shepherd’s life easier when guarding a flock at night or to knit glowing clothing.
Glowing animals have become somewhat of a trend in biomedical research. While these are the first sheep to be modified to glow in the dark, there have been glowing cats, dogs, pigs, zebrafish, mice, monkeys, and others. Since GFP can be engineered to glow only if expressed with an additional specific protein, this kind of research may be useful to understanding certain biological processes.
Glowing cats, susceptible to feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) can be useful in studying and understanding HIV and AIDS. Menchaca, in particular, wants to use the research to create a sheep that produces milk containing human growth hormones useful in treating endocrine disorders in humans. There are several other potential applications for this technology.
“The technique is complex and demands much work, which is one of the limiting factors,” said Menchaca when asked whether it will be widely available soon. “Despite the global interest and demand it is still a slow process. Our focus is generating knowledge and making it public so the scientific community can be informed and help in the long run march to generate tools so humans can live better. We’re not out in the market to sell technology.”
According to a source in Chile, the scientists who were part of the project will continue to care for the sheep, which they assure will live “normal lives.” The will not be given names, however, to maintain the scientific character of the initiative.
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