The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia lawmaker wages battle against human-jellyfish hybrids

Moon jellyfish at the zoo in Basel, Switzerland. (Georgios Kefalas/EPA)

There are a lot of matters facing Georgia's General Assembly this session. Thanks to state Rep. Tom Kirby, the question of human-animal hybrids is one of them.

Kirby (R) recently introduced a measure that would make it a misdemeanor "for any person or entity to intentionally or knowingly create or attempt to create an in vitro hybrid human-animal embryo" in Georgia, or to "transfer an in vitro human embryo into the womb of a nonhuman or to transfer an in vitro nonhuman embryo into the womb of a human."

It might seem like a weird priority for a state legislature to take up. As it turns out, it's one of four issues Kirby highlighted in his reelection campaign.

"The mixing of Human Embryos with Jellyfish cells to create a glow in the dark human," his 2014 campaign Web site reads, "we say not in Georgia."

Kirby won his reelection bid in a rout.

Despite the fact that his bill appears to target imaginary creatures, it isn't entirely inspired by them. If Georgia passed Kirby's bill, it wouldn't be the first state to do so. Arizona and Louisiana have similar measures. And George W. Bush used his 2006 State of the Union to call for a ban -- albeit in much more general terms:

Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.
Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) introduced a bill while in the Senate in 2009 that would have banned human-animal hybrids. The bill, which didn't make it out of committee, said that hybrids were "grossly unethical because they blur the line between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual."

The bill was roundly mocked by Brownback's opponents as an attempt to ban "mermaids" and "centaurs" from America.

According to Politico, Brownback's measure was based on a proposal from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Jindal's ban passed.

What separates Kirby's effort from these other measures? Well, for one thing, his unwavering concern about glowing jellyfish-humans.

Kirby told WSB-TV in Atlanta that he believes the research banned by his bill is already taking place in the United States and in Georgia, but that his information on that "is not verified, for sure."

Repeating his specific concern about human-jellyfish hybrids, Kirby said that the only purpose he knows of for introducing jellyfish genes into a human embryo would be "to make them glow in the dark."

“It's time we either get in front of it or we're going to be chasing our tails,” he said.

Although Kirby hasn't specified any fields of existing research that he believes should be banned by his bill, jellyfish genes are used in a few general ways in medical research, though not in the way the Georgia lawmaker appears to describe.

Scientists have, in the past, created several glow-in-the-dark animals by introducing jellyfish DNA into animal embryos. As The Verge explained, scientists say that the experiments are working towards newer, cheaper ways of producing medicine.

Cancer and Alzheimer's researchers, among others, also use a green fluorescent protein (GFP) derived from a jellyfish to track disease and development in cells and animals. The researchers who discovered and developed GFP won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008.

And it's not just politicians who have called for rules governing this issue. In 2011, Britain's Academy of Medical Sciences issued a report recommending several areas in which the combination of human and animal organs, tissues, cells, and genes should be regulated and prohibited.

Ten years ago, the National Academy of Sciences issued guidelines for embryonic stem cell research that addressed the mixing of human and animal cells. The non-binding but widely respected regulations outline the tricky balance between allowing the flexibility needed to pursue promising treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's that involve some use of human and animal genes, and the delicate ethical territory that lies beyond that research.

Kirby's measure, like Brownback's, includes some exceptions and provisions that would allow, for instance, for the transplantation of human organs and tissues into animals, and for the use of transgenic animal models that contain human genes

It also says that "nothing in this article shall affect conduct relating to abortion," but the bill's language prohibits it from being used to "recognize any independent right to abortion." Another provision reads "nothing in this article shall create or recognize any independent right to engage in the practice of in vitro fertilization or to create in vitro human embryos by any means."

Although the Georgia bill has a lot in common with measures proposed by antiabortion legislators elsewhere, Kirby has shied away from outright calling his bill a "pro-life" measure, saying instead that "the people who support life are all behind it, but it's not being brought on anybody's behalf. This is my bill."

Looking back on previous statements Kirby made on this subject, there appears to be another motivating factor for the bill: His skepticism of science-based ethics conversations on the issue.

In 2013, Kirby said in an interview that legislative efforts to ban human-animal embryo creation is "one of the most important pieces of legislation" that he'll work on. Describing his take on the research he believes is happening in the United States, Kirby said: "Scientists believe since it's not 100 percent human, they can do any kind of research they want to on this living organism."

More reading: 

Survival for some endangered species hinges on ‘Frozen Zoo'

How a fluorescent jellyfish – and federal dollars – helped fight AIDS

How Japan’s most promising young stem-cell scientist duped the scientific journal Nature — and destroyed her career

New hope for Parkinson’s patients in stem cell treatment