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It's Not Easy Being Green

A living, glow-in-the-dark bunny created by an artist stirs up a custody battle--and a philosophical one.

October 23, 2000|LIBBY COPELAND | WASHINGTON POST

In a Paris laboratory, Alba the albino rustles and sniffs. She is gloriously white and plump, her ears long and supple. Granted, she is just one experimental bunny among many, her beauty obscured by her scientific purpose.

But she is coveted from afar.

"All I want is for Alba to live with us and have a loving family," says Chicago artist Eduardo Kac.

But Alba's not just any rabbit destined for leaf lettuce and a cedar-chip bed. Alba glows in the dark. More precisely, she glows when placed under an ultraviolet light. She glows proudly, zealously--a most peculiar lime green from her furry feet to the tip of her nose. Her eyes gleam like twin green flashlights. She is early '90s neon surfer-wear. She is twitching psychedelia.

Alba is the product of a most unnatural union between a rabbit embryo and something called green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which comes from a certain jellyfish. She's also the flash point for the continuing debate over a brave new world that increasingly looks like a sci-fi novel, where altering the living seems as effortless and trivial as blowing your nose.

Eduardo Kac (pronounced "Katz"), an artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, claims he conceived of Alba and spurred scientists to create her for the sake of art. He wanted to use her living being as a canvas, if you will, to generate debate about the future of genetic engineering.

Art?!! you exclaim. Greening a living thing as art?!!

But wait. At the French government lab, the National Institute of Agronomic Research, about 10 other rabbits have been injected with the GFP gene in embryo, said the project's lead scientist, Louis-Marie Houdebine. For five years, GFP has been used in plants and animals worldwide because its glow-ability helps scientists study cell proteins to better understand organs, tumors and certain diseases. For example, scientists in New York are using "green mice" to study bone marrow.

GFP can be injected into stem cells or embryos, says Gordon Hager, a scientist at the National Cancer Institute who uses GFP to study hormone receptors. GFP is nontoxic and apparently has no disruptive effect in its hosts, scientists say.

But what about Alba? Kac maintains that she serves no scientific purpose. He says he spurred the laboratory to create Alba specifically so he could showcase her at an art exhibition in Avignon this summer (she didn't get to go), then take her home.

Houdebine--apparently contradicting statements he made last month to the Boston Globe when he backed up Kac's story--says Kac is mistaken. He says he created Alba, born last January, for the purposes of experimentation by mating one rabbit already injected with GFP with a normal animal. Such matings allow scientists to observe embryonic development, and as an adult, Alba can be used to generate more embryos. Houdebine says Alba was never meant to go home with the artist. He did intend to lend Alba to Kac for the exhibition in Avignon, Houdebine said, but backed down when his higher-ups balked.

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What's more, Houdebine adds, the photo of Alba on Kac's Web site (http://www.ekac.org) looks greener than she really is. Kac says he didn't alter it.

" 'Alba' doesn't exist," Houdebine says. "For me it's rabbit No. 5,256 or so." In any case, these aren't pets, Houdebine says. "We can't have affection for" them.

But Kac does. He visited Alba once, before this controversy started. Now, he says, he feels responsible for her fate.

"Since then, it has become sort of a custody battle," says Kac, who plans to go to France in December to plead his case to the lab.

But it's not just a custody battle. It's also a philosophical one. Because if Kac did "conceive" Alba, and she serves no scientific purpose, her very essence could be troubling. How dare some guy make a rabbit glow! Some ethicists argue that altering a living animal's nature for no medical benefit damages the public perception of 21st century science and threatens to demean the animal's life.

"You're begging for trouble because what that says is, science will take very powerful technology and fool around with it," says Arthur Caplan, director of the center of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "It makes us think that what we have is technology in the hand of fifth-graders."

But Kac says Alba is no mere exercise in oddity. An assistant professor of art and technology, Kac works in the media of biological and technological art. He uses science so complicated he must sometimes enlist experts' help. The theories behind his work are as dense as pound cake. His art has come in the form of virtual reality, mutating bacteria and, in one case, a "live, bi-directional, interactive, telematic, inter-species sonic installation" measuring the microvoltage in a plant as it responds to the singing of a canary across a phone line.

Kac says measuring the plant's microvoltage was a means to show that it, too, has consciousness of a sort.

Which leads us back to Alba.

"My colleague in New York told me that we are about 30% to 40% similar in the genome to the mustard plant," says Kac, who finds such a link "humbling."

Alba was to leave the cold institute to live with Kac, his wife and his 5-year-old daughter. Or, as Kac phrases it: "Rabbits have a cognitive and emotional life that I wanted to highlight."

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