Does PZ Myers glow in the dark? (Spiders and bunnys and oh my…)
Pharyngula, that astonishingly detailed window into the mind of PZ Myers, has a fascinating post up about bioluminescent spiders — mostly a description a paper that does a taxonomy of spiders that glow. (No open internet access: Andrews K, Reed SM, Masta SE (2007) Spiders fluoresce variably across many taxa. Biology Letters 3(3):265-267.)
Myers buries the lede, imho: at the end of his post he takes issue with the original paper’s authors about whether or not fluorescence as seen across spider taxa is a target for natural selection. Myers takes the “no” side, saying,
Fluorophores are ubiquitous, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the spider fluorophore was simply an incidental property of something like spider hemocyanin, and its deposition pattern is a neutral phenomenon.
This notion, that some traits can hitch a ride on more strongly selected attributes is a wonderful way to lead people into the subtlety of evolutionary thinking, because it requires recognizing out that natural selection selects against the background of random variation — and that variation will thus persist in populations in the absence of strong selection pressure. Part of what helps the anti-evolution brigade get what traction they do is because they can rely on only cartoon knowledge of evolutionary processes. Stuff like this helps erode that advantage
All of which is to say I wish PZ, with his audience, had flagged this idea high in the piece, and not in the last grafs after the jump.
That’s a quibble — up to give me the excuse to say that no discussion of glowing creatures should miss an opportunity to celebrate Alba, Eduardo Kac’s glowing green bunny. (Talk about buried ledes…)
Kac, a prolific artist with a major portfolio of what he calls “bioart” produced his GFP Bunny in 2000. Here’s Kac’s description of his bunny, Alba:
“Alba”, the green fluorescent bunny, is an albino rabbit. This means that, since she has no skin pigment, under ordinary environmental conditions she is completely white with pink eyes. Alba is not green all the time. She only glows when illuminated with the correct light. When (and only when) illuminated with blue light (maximum excitation at 488 nm), she glows with a bright green light (maximum emission at 509 nm). She was created with EGFP, an enhanced version (i.e., a synthetic mutation) of the original wild-type green fluorescent gene found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. EGFP gives about two orders of magnitude greater fluorescence in mammalian cells (including human cells) than the original jellyfish gene .
The first phase of the “GFP Bunny” project was completed in February 2000 with the birth of “Alba” in Jouy-en-Josas, France. This was accomplished with the invaluable assistance of zoosystemician Louis Bec  and scientists Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunet . (see link for references)
Unsurprisingly, Kac’s willingness to manipulate a cute furry creature for art’s sake has aroused a fair amount of debate. He regards Alba as at once a member of his family and as the center of a complicated nexus of art and social thought. He writes “transgenic art…. is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings,” and then goes on to argue that the genetic manipulation that produced Alba sets off a reexamination of the implications of much of modern biology along with an “expansion of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of artmaking to incorporate life invention.”
That’s a big load for one green bunny to carry. For my part, Alba seems more of a party trick than a catalyst for deep thought. I think Kac protests too much about the significance of his manipulated animal, and more or less coyly chooses not to notice how much of the GFP Bunny project centers on the core, striking image of his day-glo Alba — which, please note, I shamelessly take advantage of here.