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News Article

Glowing Rabbit Glows No More


A glowing rabbit which was part of a transgenic art work by Eduardo Kac, is reported to have died.

In 2000, the artist Eduardo Kac featured Alba, a transgenic albino rabbit expressing the green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene, as a work of transgenic art. The rabbit glowed when illuminated under certain light conditions. Kac envisaged the GFP Bunny project in three phases, the creation of the transgenic animal, the debate surrounding her creation, and finally the integration of the rabbit into the Kac household in the USA.

Recent reports from the French National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA), suggest that Alba has died. This means that the third phase of the transgenic art work will never take place.

The rabbit was created by Louis-Marie Houdebine, a genetic researcher at INRA. Houdebine has suggested that the rabbit reached the end of its natural lifespan and that the GFP gene was not a factor in her death. The age of the rabbit is disputed by Houdebine and Kac. Houdebine is cited as saying that the rabbit was over four years old and was given to Kac from a group of transgenic rabbits already in his lab. Kac, however, insists that the rabbit was only 2.5 years old as she was created specially for the project in January 2000. Kac has suggested that Houdebine may have just declared the rabbit dead in order to put an end to a two-year barrage of media attention on Alba. The speculation as to whether the rabbit was specifically created for Kac or was simply part of an ongoing experiment has led artists and critics questioning if Kac can take credit for the Alba project.

The relationship between the artist and the scientist seems to have cooled since the rabbit has attracted so much media attention. Houdebine and the director of the institute were opposed to the now-famous, brilliantly glowing photograph of Alba. They and other researchers say the rabbit doesn't actually glow so brightly and uniformly. Houdebine is cited as saying, "Kac fabricated data for his personal use. This is why we totally stopped any contact with him. The scientific fact is that the rabbit is not green….He should have never published that. This was very disagreeable for me." According to Houdebine, the eyes and ears of the rabbit were green under ultraviolet light. The fur could not glow because it is composed of dead tissue that doesn't express the gene. Only if the rabbit were shaved would the body glow. Other researcher/artists who have done projects similar to Kac's have doubted the photograph's authenticity. Reinhard Nestelbacher, a molecular biologist at the University of Salzburg is cited as saying, "The picture itself is a construction. The rabbit could never look like that. The main reason is that the GFP gene is expressed, for example, in the skin and cannot be expressed in the hair."

Kac maintains that the scientists involved in the project were afraid of public criticism. The whole point of the Alba project was to encourage discussion on the topic. He is cited as saying that the director of the institute had refused to participate openly in a debate about what is done with public money. He is reported to have said, "It's very easy to fear and reject what you don't know. As long as they continue to isolate themselves, this mistrust will continue."

Further information, and the infamous photograph of Alba, can be found on Kac's GFP Bunny website.

Article details

  • Date
  • 13 August 2002
  • Subject(s)
  • Awaiting Classification (3)