This kitten may have the key to protect humans against HIV, the lentivirus that causes AIDS. He was genetically modified at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. And yes, he glows in the dark.
His fluorescent fur and claws are not a side-effect of the gene that makes the cat resistant to the feline form of the HIV — known as the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. It's caused by another gene that produces the Green Fluorescent Protein, which is naturally produced by the jellyfish Aequorea victoria . The Mayo Clinic team lead by Dr Eric Poeschia inserted this gene alongside the anti-viral gene to track the cells:
We did it to mark cells easily just by looking under the microscope or shining a light on the animal.
The antiviral gene — which comes from a rhesus macaque — produces a less fun but much more useful protein, a restriction factor called TRIMCyp. This protein can make T-cells — the blood cells that fight infections — resist viruses that cause AIDS in "a wide range of species", according to Dr Laurence Tiley of the University of Cambridge.
Dr Poeschia says that this research will benefit humans:
One of the best things about this biomedical research is that it is aimed at benefiting both human and feline health. If you could show that you confer protection to these animals, it would give us a lot of information about protecting humans.
So far, Dr Poeschia's team has only tested the gene therapy on cells extracted from the cats, not on the cats themselves, which is the next step on their research. [Nature via Guardian, BBC, Science Daily]