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Cloned cats that glow?!

AFP / Getty Images

CLICK FOR VIDEO: Photos from South Korea's Ministry of Science and Technology

show cats with a gene for producing red fluorescence protein. The cats appear

normal in visible light, at left, but their skin glows red under ultraviolet light, at

right. Click here or on the image to watch the video from NBC's TODAY show.

South Korean scientists say they have cloned cats whose genes have been altered so that they glow in the dark - taking advantage of a technological twist that could someday be used to make more dramatic genetic changes in all sorts of creatures.

A research team at Gyeongsang National University, headed by Kong Il-Keun, produced several kitty clones in January and February, the government-managed news service reported Wednesday. This week the scientists showed off the cats, which now weigh about 7 pounds (3 to 3.5 kilograms) and glow a dull red under ultraviolet light.

"The ability to manipulate the fluorescent protein and use this to clone cats opens new horizons for artificially creating animals with human illnesses linked to genetic causes," the Ministry of Science and Technology said in Wednesday's report.

The procedure for cloning a cat has been around for six years, and Kong himself first performed that particular feat back in 2004. What's noteworthy about the newly reported twist - other than that glow-in-the-dark kitties are really cool - is that scientists fiddled with the donor cat's genetic code, then passed those changes on to the clones.

Here's what the researchers say they did: They took skin cells from Turkish Angora female cats and used a virus to insert the genetic instructions for making red fluorescent protein. Then they put the gene-altered nuclei into eggs for cloning. The cloned embryos were implanted back into the donor cats, which effectively became the surrogate mothers for their own clones.

Four kittens were born by Caesarian section, but one of them died during the procedure, according to the Korea Times. The fact that the kittens' skin cells glowed under ultraviolet light served as evidence that they were really gene-altered clones.

Assuming that the results are confirmed, Kong's cats would join mice and pigs in the glow-in-the-dark clone menagerie. The implication is that if you can pass along the easy-to-recognize coding for fluorescent markers through cloning, you could eventually pass along more complex genetic coding.

Theoretically, you could add in the coding for an endangered species, producing cloned hybrids to boost the gene pool for Sumatran tigers, Iberian lynxes and the like. You might even stick in the coding to give other creatures human diseases, so that they can be studied without raising the level of ethical concern that comes with human experimentation. (I realize that there's a different set of ethical concerns about such trangenic experiments, however.)

Most provocatively, animal clones might be genetically altered to produce human body parts. Does that sound like a way-out science-fiction plot? Well, it's already happening, and sparking an unsettling debate.

This week's report doesn't mean that glow-in-the-dark pets will be waiting under the Christmas tree anytime soon. There are a few caveats surrounding these cats:

  • This research came to light through press releases rather than peer-reviewed articles, and many of the details still have to be published and replicated. It doesn't help that South Korea was ground zero for the biggest scientific scandal in cloning just a couple of years ago. You'll want to wait for confirmation before you put too much stock in Kong's glowing reports.
  • Even if the results are confirmed, they represent just one more small step in the long march of genetic progress. Those cool fluorescent proteins merely serve as a guide for more substantive genetic modifications.
  • Even if glow-in-the-dark cats become routine in the laboratory, that doesn't mean they'll hit it off as housepets. Glow-in-the-dark fish have been offered commercially for several years - but they're still illegal in California and many countries, due to concerns about genetically modified organisms. What's more, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to produce just one run-of-the-mill, non-glowing cat clone - a price tag so hefty that it's not commercially viable.

To my mind, the best place to look for a cute little ball of glowing fur is your local pet adoption center - plus an outlet that sells glow-in-the-dark cat collars. What do you think? As always, feel free to weigh in with your comments below.