Even as he works toward very important medical goals, Stefan Moisyadi seems to add color to everything he touches.

As a lead scientist at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Biogenesis Research, he and a team of collaborators in Turkey used DNA from jellyfish to produce living glow-in-the-dark bunnies
last week

Moisyadi is building up something of a menagerie of neon creatures. He collaborated with Chinese scientists to produce glowing pigs early this year. And he oversaw a group of scientists in Turkey who inserted jellyfish DNA into the embryos of 10 sheep, all of which are carrying twin lambs. The pregnant sheep are due to give birth in November.

He is not creating fluorescent animals for the fun of it. Moisyadi told Civil Beat that the goal is to one day use his patented gene-transfer technology to produce cheaper medicines or cure diseases such as hemophilia. The glowing effect is an easy way to tell whether or not the genetic transfer is working. If the rabbit glows, scientists know that it did.

But the glowing animal experiments are drawing caustic reactions from anti-bio tech and pro-animal rights activists. Babes Against Biotech, an anti-GMO group known for its bikini-clad awareness raising, posted a sarcastic post on its Facebook page: “Jellyfish rabbits. Yay. Because we always wanted GMO rabbit milk medicine.”

All sarcasm aside, creating bunnies the color of glow sticks at a rave does raise serious questions about ethics.

Moisyadi is unapologetic about creating glowing animals, and about doing so overseas to avoid U.S. regulations and costs.

“Animals have so many rights now that it is insane,” Moisyadi said. “So the cost to do it in the U.S. is extremely prohibitive. They want to stop you. That’s why we’re going abroad where regulations are a lot more sensible.”

University of Hawaii

It’s not illegal to do this type of research in the U.S, according to bioethicists, but scientists must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates relevant scientific testing. Universities are also required to maintain an ethics board, called the Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee, that reviews animal research requests.

Norman Mango, director of the University of Hawaii’s ethics committee, did not respond to interview requests. Taglia Ogliore, a spokeswoman for the university, issued a written statement saying that the rabbit project followed “ethical and humane protocols” that were approved by the University of Istanbul and the University of Marmara in Turkey.

She also said that the tests do not violate University of Hawaii ethical standards. “No work was completed in UH laboratories during these experiments, nor was any part of the work funded by U.S. federal agencies,” wrote Ogliore. “Nonetheless, the investigators did follow the same scientific rigor and general ethical tenets as would be followed at UH Manoa.”

The University of Hawaii has approved transgenic testing in mice, but it’s not clear if officials would allow such research in other animals. Steve Ward, director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Biogenesis Research, said that the issue hasn’t come up for the ethics committee because the cost of doing the tests here would be prohibitive.

Using fluorescence to track whether gene transfer is successful is not new. Scientists have also produced glowing puppies, kittens and marmosets, according to various news reports. Scientists hope that gene technology will help cure diseases such as HIV. While much of the research has been focused on preventing humans or animals from being born with a certain disease or disorder, Moisyadi said that the goal is also to cure afflictions in living animals and humans.

Moisyadi’s scientific vision seems to be inspiring nightmares in some animal rights circles.

Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which tracks transgenic testing, lamented that, “Behind the cute photos, there’s a lot of suffering.”

Moisyadi says that the experiments caused “no ill effects” in the animals. Meanwhile, the baby rabbits that weren’t born with the jellyfish DNA are slated for adoption and the green rabbits will remain in the lab for observation. The pigs in China are to be kept as “novelties” that will be shown to visitors, according to the scientist. He didn’t offer an explanation of the subject of photos he later sent to Civil Beat. They showed autopsy pictures of glowing pig organs, suggesting that at least one has died.

The Professor of Law and Bioethics Alta Charo, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, highlighted the importance of monitoring such research to ensure that it won’t negatively affect the natural environment through the inadvertent release of genetically modified traits. But she said that much of the general population’s discomfort about genetic research isn’t based in science.

“There’s a commonly held, instinctive distrust of things that alter existing species even if it’s done for a good purpose,” she said. “Personally, I think it’s something that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of biology, premised on the belief that species are distinct and permanent. And in fact, species are not as distinct from one another as we think.”

Video of transgenic rabbits, courtesy of the University of Hawaii

Glowing Green Rabbits from UHMed on Vimeo.

About the Author