Dubbed a "biomedical supermodel" by the journal Nature, a genetically modified monkey that glows in ultraviolet light has been developed by a team of Japanese researchers.
That's because -- unlike past glow-in-the-dark primates -- these marmosets were able to pass their modification on to their offspring. That means scientists may be able to develop monkeys that have been genetically modified to have human conditions. This would make them ideal for medical research.
Scientists have genetically engineered many other species to be research tools. Mice in particular have been created with a wide assortment of characteristics and diseases that mimic human ailments.
But because mice are so genetically different from humans, scientists have long sought to breed primates to provide better disease "models." Although scientists have been able to genetically modify individual monkeys, they had never before succeeded in getting the new traits to pass down through generations - a crucial step for creating large enough numbers for research.
The monkeys were developed by Erika Sasaki and her team at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, by adding a jellyfish gene to marmoset embryos that made them glow green. Last month, a male was born using sperm from one monkey, and two more glowing marmosets have been born since. One was killed when its mother bit it. The scientists plan to create families of monkeys that develop neuro-degenerative diseases.
“This is potentially very exciting,” said Kieran Breen of the Parkinson’s Disease Society. “Because primates are much closer to humans than mice, we’ll have a new animal model to work with.”
The research was condemned by animal rights proponents, who said it paves the way for the producing of colonies of primates conceived expressly to suffer a plethora of cruel illnesses and undergo potentially painful and dangerous medical experiments.
Because the work marks the first time a species so closely related to humans has been genetically altered in this way, some also worried the same techniques would be used on chimps or other primates even closer to humans or to try to endow people with desirable genetic traits.
The BBC spoke to leading animal right activists in Britain, who questioned the need for such work.
Jarrod Bailey, science consultant to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), says he is "disappointed" both ethically and scientifically with the results.
"This sort of research on animals as sentient as monkeys and apes does not have public support," he told BBC News.
Furthermore, he thinks the underlying science is flawed. Animal researchers, he said, "have failed in research to find treatments for Aids, for hepatitis, for malaria, for strokes. Many treatments for strokes work in monkeys but don't work in humans."
"Monkeys do not predict human response and do not tell us about human disease," he added.