Tagged: enzymes

Glow In The Dark Cats

February 29th, 2012 in Trending Topics 1 comment

The Synapse Weekly – AIDS research and jellyfish?

Everyone knows the Internet is for cats. Nothing else, just cats. Cats are fun, cats are cute, and cats have the ability to improve the quality of any day. I mean, just look at this guy!

Your day is better already... Credit | Codyrapol.com

Credita | Codyrapol.com

Your day is better already.

But wait: aside from chemistry puns, can cats make any important contributions to science?  Yes, they do – and in a big way. The Mayo Clinic is now using felines as test subjects to research AIDS, an immunologic disease. And while this sounds pretty cool, it gets even better: these cats glow in the dark.

Wait, did we say cats?  This little mutants are still adorable kittens. Credit | NPR

Wait, did we say cats? This little mutants are still adorable kittens. Creditb | NPR

Bioluminescence, the ability to emit light, occurs naturally in organisms like jellyfish, insects and fungi (please note, this group does not include cats). In 1961, Osamu Shimomura (a Boston University graduate and Nobel Prize winner) and his colleagues, Martin Chalfe and Roger Y. Tsien, isolated the protein responsible for bioluminescence in the jellyfish species Aequorea victoria.1 This protein is called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). A non-bioluminescent organism can be genetically modified to emit light if the DNA sequence encoding for GFP is incorporated into its genome.

When scientists want to incorporate a specific DNA sequence into an organism for research, it is difficult to determine if the sequence has been properly integrated. To be sure the DNA sequence is functional within the organism, the GFP gene is inserted into the organism’s genome at the same time as the DNA sequence to be researched. If the organism is bioluminescent, the specific DNA sequence has properly integrated into the genome. The fluorescence thus acts as a tag for successful integration, allowing easy identification of the modified organism.

This is a simplified representation of molecular biochemistry with enzymes. Credit | Dhorstool via Wikimedia Commons

This is a simplified representation of molecular biochemistry with enzymes. Credit | Dhorstool via Wikimedia Commons

At first, bioluminescence tags were only used in single-celled organisms. Now, scientists use the protein in multi-celled organisms … like cats.  In this case, the cats that are “tagged” with the glowing GFP protein also successfully produce a protein that protects them against the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).2, 3 FIV is the virus that causes feline AIDS, and is comparable to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the AIDS epedemic.2 Because of this, the research involving FIV may also be applicable to humans, helping both species in their struggle against AIDS.

Several other experiments must be completed before we know the benefits of this research, but the results so far are promising. Both GFP and the protective protein transfer through natural reproductive processes, 2 promising at least two things:

1)   FIV and AIDS research will continue to test the effectiveness of the protective protein. If the protein proves effective, the transferable nature of the gene may be applied to the whole population of domestic cats. This may then be modified and applied to humans.

2)   As research continues, there will be more glowing cats! Everyone wins!


1 Shimomura, Osamu. Autobiography. Retrieved from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2008/shimomura.

2 Nellis, Robert. (2011, September 11). Mayo Clinic Teams with Glowing Cats Against AIDS,
Other Diseases: New technique gives cats protection genes. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2011-rst/6434.html

3 Wongsrikeao, Pimprapar and Dyana Saenz, Tommy Rinkoski, Takeshige Otoi & Eric
Poeschla. Antiviral transcription factor transgenesis in the domestic cat.  Nature
Methods. 11 September 2011.  Retrieved from

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