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7 Genetically Modified Animals That Glow in the Dark

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By Lauren Hansen

This is no party trick. These radiant sheep, dogs, and cats help further research of human diseases.

1. Sheep

Good news, nighttime shepherds: Sheep can now glow in the dark. Well, technically, only nine of the wooly animals can. And they're in Uruguay.

When these sheep were born in October 2012, scientists at the Animal Reproductive Institute of Uruguay immediately injected them with a green protein found in the Aequorea Victoria jellyfish. As the sheep grew, they looked and acted like any other four-legged balls of fluff, except that they gave off a greenish glow after being exposed to certain ultraviolet light. Check 'em out:

Typically, these green fluorescent proteins are used to monitor the activity of altered genes. They have proved to be of great help in the study of diseases. In fact, the method's scientific pioneers were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2008. In the case of these sheep, scientists hope that one day they'll be able to use this sort of procedure to create animals with super health-boosting milk. Here, a look back at the radiant animals at the center of these genetic studies throughout the last decade.

2. A rabbit

Ekac.org/Chrystelle Fontaine

This endeavor was actually an artistic one. Eduard Kac is an artist known to use genetic engineering techniques to create unique living works of art. In May 2000, Kac introduced the world to his "GFP bunny," an albino rabbit named Alba that glowed fluorescent when exposed to blue light. Alba was actually just one component of the project, which was also supposed to include a public debate about the practice of manipulating genes in animals for research. Kac wanted to conclude the project by taking Alba home to live with his family. A research institute in France actually created the rabbit for Kac — the florescent jellyfish protein was injected into a fertilized rabbit egg — and later hesitated over releasing the animal due to protests from animal rights groups over Alba's very creation. The scientists also claimed that they never agreed for Kac to take the bunny home. Two years after Alba was born, and long before Alba could make her trip to the states, the unique rabbit died — an abrupt end to the battle between science and art.

3. Pigs

In 2008, scientists in Taiwan claimed to have a world first: Pigs that glowed from the inside out. While other researchers had bred partially fluorescent pigs, these genetically modified pigs had not only glowing skin and eyes, but also organs, including the heart. Scientists added DNA from fluorescent jellyfish to more than 260 pig embryos, which were then implanted into eight different sows, four of which became pregnant. The result was three male piglets whose eyes, teeth, and snouts had a slightly greenish tint during the day, but would glow entirely green in the dark after being introduced to a blue light.

4. Monkeys

E. Sasaki et al 2009

In this 2009 study, the same jellyfish DNA injection was used, but for different purposes. Scientists in Japan wanted to see if the jellyfish gene was inherited by the second generation of a genetically modified monkey. The team at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, added a fluorescent gene to the marmoset embryos, which were then transferred into surrogate females who produced five live births. All of the modified marmosets carried the genes in their body. When they produced offspring, two passed the fluorescent gene onto their young. This was the first time a genetically modified animal passed such genes down a generation. Researchers said it could be a major step in understanding Parkinson's and motor neuron disease.

5. Dogs

A 2009 experiment by a team at Seoul National University reportedly produced the first transgenic dog. Five beagles were created by cloning fibroblast cells that express a red florescent gene produced by sea anemones. Under natural light you can see the faint essence of the red protein under the pale skin. In the dark and under an ultraviolet light, the dogs glow a reddish orange. The five healthy dogs eventually grew to spawn their own florescent offspring. The experiment was meant to prove the principle of transgenic animals, particularly dogs, who, due to their lifespan and reproductive cycle, are good stand-ins for human disease research. Two years later, a team at the same university bred a beagle name Tegon whose fluorescent gene could be controlled. When the dog eats food containing a doxycycline antibiotic and then is exposed to ultraviolet light, it glows green. When the drug is no longer added to the food, the glow eventually fades. Scientists say the study opens opportunities for better understanding genes that trigger fatal diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, in humans.

6. Cats

A glowing kitten stands next to a normal cat. Photo courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.

Cats are susceptible to a close relative of HIV called feline immunodeficiency virus. The viral disease infects mostly feral cats, of which there are reportedly a half a billion in the world. In a 2011 study, a team of scientists from the U.S. and Japan inserted a gene into cats that helps them resist this feline form of AIDS. Then, to be able to easily mark the cells, scientists also inserted the green fluorescent protein. Both genes were transferred into feline eggs. They were then able to more readily monitor how the resistant gene developed in the cats' bodies when looking at them under a microscope. Like the other animals, the cats appeared normal during the day, but could glow at night if prompted.

7. Fish

University of Exeter

One of the biggest downsides to helpful industrial products like, say, plastic, or female contraceptives, is that they contain bad chemicals called endocrine disrupters. These substances become pollutants that harm animal and human bodies. They have reportedly been associated with lower sperm counts and breast and testicular cancers. So you can see why scientists may want to study them. The problem has been that it is difficult to track the endocrine disrupters once they enter the body. And so a team of scientists used green fluorescent proteins and genetically engineered zebrafish to glow in places where an endocrine-disrupting chemical is present. As we've previously illustrated, the fluorescent protein doesn't interfere with the body, but, when studied under a microscope, can be easily found. The glowing green areas within the fish then become a roadmap for scientists homing in on the pollutants' potential health impacts.

Sources: ABC NewsBBCDiscovery, The GuardianNational GeographicNBC NewsNew Scientist (2), The RegisterTaipai Times

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These Strange Sea Spiders Breathe Through Their Legs
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

We know that humans breathe through their lungs and fish breathe through their gills—but where exactly does that leave sea spiders?

Though they might appear to share much in common with land spiders, sea spiders are not actually arachnids. And, by extension, they don't circulate blood and oxygen the way you'd expect them to, either.

A new study from Current Biology found that these leggy sea dwellers (marine arthropods of the class Pycnogonida) use their external skeleton to take in oxygen. Or, more specifically: They use their legs. The sea spider contracts its legs—which contain its guts—to pump oxygen through its body.

Somehow, these sea spiders hardly take the cake for Strangest Spider Alive (especially because they're not actually spiders); check out, for instance, our round-up of the 10 strangest spiders, and watch the video from National Geographic below:

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science
Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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