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Monkey see, monkey glow

Altered primates bring inherited genetic modification closer to man.

A forest officer shows a marmoset, a rare breed of monkey, in the southern Indian city of Chennai, July 28, 2006. Scientists in Japan have genetically engineered a florescence gene into marmoset monkeys, who then passed the trait on to their offspring. (Babu/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — Altering the genome in such a way that changes could be passed on to future generations is a line that science has not yet crossed for humans — but it now has for monkeys.

An experiment in Japan has bought science closer to genetic engineering's ethical boundary, an area that many countries, including the United States, have yet to demarcate under law.

Researchers at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki recently imbued a handful of South American monkeys with a gene for florescence, and then showed that the initial cohort could pass on this trait to their offspring — the first inheritable genetic manipulation in the family of primates that includes humans.

The Japanese scientists experimented on marmosets, a species of primates more distant from humans than Rhesus monkeys or chimpanzees. The journal Nature, which reported on the experiment, said the technique had “little immediate bearing” on human genetic alteration because the marmoset is so far removed from man. But a commentary in the journal acknowledged that the experiment raised bioethical concerns — “foremost among them is the prospect of unwarranted and unwise application of transgenic technologies” to human beings.

Scientists have long known how to create colonies of mice and rats with inheritable disease traits for use in drug research. The potential addition of marmosets to that list was sufficient to inflame animal rights activists.

But the proximity of genetic alteration to human inheritance was the novel concern raised by the experiment — a prospect which many nations have yet to consider, according to Marcy Darnovsky with the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif.

The center, which has helped survey the legal status of inheritable genetic modification around the world, says 44 nations already have laws that would prohibit such experiments on humans, including Japan, Canada, Australia and the members of the European Union.

Darnovsky said the cloning of Dolly the sheep, announced in 1997, prompted the European Union to consider that scientists might try to make inheritable modifications to humans. Member nations included a prohibition against any such attempts in the 1999 Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights. The convention allowed “genetic engineering only for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic reasons and only where it does not aim to change the genetic make-up of a person's descendants,” according to an official summary.