Cats genetically modified to glow in the dark can give vital clues to the treatment of AIDS, scientists have found.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. and Yamaguchi University in Japan have developed a genome-based immunization strategy to fight feline AIDS and illuminate ways to combat human AIDS and other diseases. The research was published in Nature Methods.

As with HIV, the feline immunodeficiency virus causes AIDS.

One of the best things about this biomedical research is that it is aimed at benefiting both human and feline health, said Eric Poeschla, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who led the study.

HIV/AIDS has killed more than 30 million people and left countless children orphaned, with no effective vaccine on the horizon.

Part of the reason cats fall prey to the virus is because they lack a key immune protein that helps to fight viruses even before the rest of the immune system knows an infection is in progress.

Researchers produced three glowing GM cats by using a virus to carry a gene, called green fluorescent protein, into the eggs from which the animals eventually grew. This method of genetic modification is simpler and more efficient than traditional cloning techniques, and results in fewer animals being needed in the process.

The gene, which has its origins in jellyfish, expresses proteins that fluoresce when illuminated with certain frequencies of light. This function is regularly used by scientists to monitor the activity of individual genes or cells in a wide variety of animals. The development and refinement of the gene technique earned its scientific pioneers the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2008.

Shining a UV light on the cats produced a green glow, confirming that the protein was being produced in their tissues and that the technique had worked.

The method for inserting genes into the feline genome is highly efficient, so that virtually all offspring have the genes. The cats with the protective genes are thriving and have produced kittens whose cells make the proteins, thus proving that the inserted genes remain active in successive generations.