Korean Genetic Scientists Create Glow In The Dark Dog

The saying, “dog is man’s best friend” certainly wasn’t meant to include their role in medical research. But recent work by researchers at the Seoul National University highlights – literally – the growing role for dogs in genetics research. The team inserted a gene into a group of dogs that made them glow under UV light. The glowing canines certainly make for an awesome party trick, and will most certainly (again) raise the ire of PETA, but the technology that gives them their aura could lead to breakthroughs in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The lab, led by Lee Byeong-chun, is the same lab that last year introduced us to Ruby Puppy – Ruppy for short – the world’s first transgenic dog. As with Ruppy the current work involved cloning beagles via somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique used to produce Dolly. It involved taking the nucleus of a skin cell, added the fluorescent protein gene to the nucleus, and swapped out an egg nucleus for the modified one. The egg was left to divide in Petri dish for a few hours then implanted into a surrogate mother. The newborn, genetically modified, female beagle was named Tegon.

Instead of glowing red as Ruppy had, Tegon’s fluorescent protein glows green. A more important difference is the fact that Tegon’s fluorescent protein can be turned on or off with a drug – they just add it to the dog’s food. The ability to experimentally turn a gene on or off is already used in many other animal disease models. It’s a powerful tool with which scientists can monitor the effects of a given gene. For example, the gene beta-amyloid is thought to disrupt proper neuronal function in Alzheimer’s disease. Turning the gene on and then monitoring neuronal function over time could reveal clues as to how Alzheimer’s disease develops. Right now the green fluorescent gene in Tegon’s cells serves only to confirm that the technology works, but Lee Byeong-chun told Reuters that he’s looking ahead: “The creation of Tegon opens new horizons since the gene injected to make the dog glow can be substituted with genes that trigger fatal human diseases.”

Genetically modified mice have been crucial to deciphering mechanisms of disease.

The work was publihed last month in the journal Genesis.

One might question why it’s necessary to experiment on dogs, especially given the fact that similar genetic tools are already being used in other animals, including mice. In general, the more animal models the better. The ideal animal to use when curing human disease would be, of course, humans. But since it’s against the law to genetically modify humans to model disease, we use as many animal models as we can. None of them are perfect so we use as many as we can make. Simpler animals such as fruit flies, zebrafish, and roundworms are great for genetic manipulation, but theirs is a far cry from human physiology. Other than genetically modified mice, there’s not much else in the way of genetically modified mammalian models for disease although researchers have made important steps recently towards developing genetically modified primates. The utility of modeling diseases in dogs is also supported by the fact that, as the scientists point out, there are 268 illnesses that humans have in common with dogs. Dogs could provide an important addition to this medical research shortcoming.

If you’re a little put off by the idea of dogs under the scope I don’t blame you. But what Lee Byeong-chun’s group has accomplished with Tegon is nothing short of phenomenal. And we can only hope that the discoveries that come from it are as well.


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