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Monkey see, monkey glow

Altered primates bring inherited genetic modification closer to man.

“In Europe this all got considered under a framework of human rights,” Darnovsky said, the concern being that human alteration “would lead to a world of genetic haves and have nots.”

But in the United States, Darnovsky said, the issue got caught up in what she called “the embryo swamp” — the disagreement over how to define human life that has polarized American debate on issues ranging from abortion to stem cell research. As a result, professional guidelines remain the only U.S. bulwark against the genetic engineering of human inheritance, Darnovosky said.

As the Nature commentary suggests, mainstream scientists do not now believe they could ethically attempt such modifications on human beings — even if considered desirable — because current techniques involve so many failures, Darnovsky said. The Japanese researchers, for instance, altered 80 marmoset embryos to include a florescent jellyfish gene, then implanted these embryos into 50 surrogate females to produce seven pregnancies and five offspring, four of which expressed the green glow in the presence of ultraviolet light.

Yet after all that effort, those first-generation results weren't the real breakthrough. Oregon State University scientists had already genetically engineered a florescence gene into a Rhesus monkey in 2001. The novelty in the Japanese experiment was the birth of a second-generation male offspring, fertilized in vitro using the sperm of an altered first-generation male. To go to such lengths, including miscarriages, to produce an inheritable human modification would violate too many ethical norms, Darnovsky said.

But in time, other researchers could improve the technique with the ultimate goal of modifying humans, suggested Lori B. Andrews, with the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law, in a story in the Washington Post. “This is a proof of concept in a closely related species,” Andrews said.

The editors of Nature hailed the Japanese achievement as an advance in drug research while warning that “scientists everywhere must be ready to discuss ... the possibility of transgenic humans and other controversial topics.” Darnovsky said the same is true for governments, like the United States, which have no laws on the subject. “We're really the outlier here,” she said of the United States.

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