The technology behind the glowing fish is much simpler and much older than the technology behind the allergy-free cats. In fact, the technology is so simple that we have visitors make glowing bacteria here at The Tech
Since their discovery, people have been putting the genes for fluorescent proteins into plants, animals, bacteria, and anything else they can think of. These glowing proteins are a useful way to study biology in a living animal and they look pretty cool too.
So how did glowing animals come about? After years of work, scientists identified the gene that made the jellyfish, Aequoria victoria
, glow. What was special about this green fluorescent protein, or GFP, was that it could glow on its own -- you only needed the one protein to get the glow.
Once they found this out, scientists started putting it into all manners of beast from bacteria to yeast to plants and animals to make them glow.
Since all living things use the same genetic code, a gene from bacteria or jellyfish can work in mammals. If we think of a gene as a recipe, this means that all of the words in the recipe are the same.
In keeping with the recipe analogy, the only major difference between all of these organisms is in the punctuation. While the words are the same, how to tell when a new sentence should begin is different. In other words, different organisms have different ways of telling the cell to start making RNA from a gene.
Scientists needed to break this "punctuation" code to get foreign genes to be read. Once broken, all a scientist needed to do to make a glowing fish was to change the punctuation of the GFP gene from jellyfish to zebra fish.
The rest was pretty easy. We now have glowing mice, rabbits, fish, bacteria, yeast and even human cells!
Beyond being pretty, the glowing proteins have revolutionized biology. Biology suffered for a long time from not having an easy way to look at what is going on in a living cell. Often, the plants or animals being studied had to be dissected to figure out what was going on.
Now with GFP, we can tell what specifically is going on in a cell, whether a gene is involved in making ears, turning on other genes (and which genes it turns on), fighting off infection, etc. All thanks to a little jellyfish from Puget Sound...