Words: Jocelyn Doyle. [Featured Image via Science Gallery]
“We need to explore potential risks, consequences and the possible negative implications of building a world where animals become factories, human bodies produce raw materials and everyday objects are potentially alive.” – Anthony Dunne, co-curator of Grow Your Own.
I’m looking at a mouse. Not just any mouse, but one whose genes were engineered to mirror some of Elvis’s personality traits. The mouse floats, motionless, in a glass cylinder of formaldehyde. I can’t help but feel like this would make for a disappointing residency in Vegas. His pocket-sized pelvis remains decidedly unthrusted.
This rock ‘n’ roll rodent is part of Grow Your Own, the current exhibition in the Science Gallery at Trinity College. This showing is a conceptual but tangible comment on possible future developments in the area of synthetic biology, and their potential consequences. Synthetic biology is an exciting but somewhat scary field, fusing engineering with the manipulation of biological systems at a genetic level. The term can refer to either the design and creation of original biological parts and systems, or the re-configuration of existing natural systems to suit new purposes. Synthetic biology has wide-reaching implications for a myriad of different disciplines, and is about much more than producing Elvis-inspired mice. Ethically-speaking, it remains a source of much controversy and debate, but Grow Your Own is more about asking questions than it is about reaching conclusions.
Take the environment, for example. Synthetic biology could, in theory, help to save endangered species, as shown in the work entitled “Designing for the Sixth Extinction.” This envisioned future in one in which new “companion species,” designed by synthetic biologists, are released into the wild to provide support to endangered natural species and ecosystems. Based on existing fungi, bacteria, invertebrates and mammals, these species are designed with specific functions in mind, such as filling the void left by extinct animals, or offering innovative protection against foreign species, diseases and pollution. This piece begs the question: If nature is industrialised for the benefit of society, does nature still exist for us to save?
Meanwhile, for anyone harbouring obscure maternal fantasies, “I Wanna Deliver A Dolphin,” is an intriguingly freaky piece which asks whether, in the face of potential food shortages and a growing global population, there is the possibility of endangered species (examples given include sharks, tuna and the diminutive Maui’s dolphin) being carried in the human wombs of the future. This project delves into grotesque technicalities like a “dolp-human placenta,” while introducing the argument for giving birth to our food, simultaneously satisfying our human needs for both nutrition and childbirth. Would animals raised in our wombs be “imbued with the love of motherhood” as our human offspring are, or could we still view them as potential sustenance?
Of course, aside from the captivatingly-unnatural elements of the exhibition, reminiscent of freak shows past, synthetic biology means potentially life-saving developments in the field of medicine. How about a cerebrothrombal dilutus? Formed from the salivary glands of a leech (seriously, where do they come up with this stuff?) it releases an anticoagulant in the event of a blood clot, preventing a stroke. Or perhaps a defibrillating organ constructed from parts of an electric eel, designed to apply electric currents during a cardiac arrest? These are still only concepts, but clever concepts nonetheless.
This idea flows smoothly into that of “pharmafoods,” or foods with a medical function. Grow Your Own includes “E. Chromi,” a conceptual probiotic drink which, when ingested, will turn your faeces different colours to indicate specific diseases present in your gut (blue poo means worms, pink poo means salmonella and so on.) This seems like it would be a fantastic diagnostic tool, and a helpful staff member informed us that its creators have been approached by pharmaceutical companies, but the flip side of it is: how do we know that drinking synthetic bacteria isn’t harmful? The answer (thus far, anyway) is, we don’t.
Keeping on the bizarre food trail, we come to “Selfmade,” a piece about bacteria and cheese. All cheese production and maturation involves the help of bacteria; this is the first (that I know of, anyway) to use human skin cells scraped from the armpits and feet of contributors. Ummm. Yeah. This is based on the idea of using our own bodies in the production of our food, a new definition of self-sufficiency which is admittedly thought-provoking, but also mildly stomach-turning. I’ve always prided myself on trying any cheese, no matter how stinky; as it turns out, this is where I draw the line.
Grow Your Own is also home to a Community Bio-Lab, where visitors can cultivate their own yoghurt, grow their own kombucha pancakes, and enjoy hands-on learning at synthetic biology workshops. These sound incredibly interesting, and yet – surrounded as I am by genetically-modified tulips, an apple with the Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA sequence, banana scented E. coli and bright yellow poop – I wonder. With our natural world already suffering from our leaps in technology, is injecting more technology into that nature really the answer? Isn’t this playing God on a dangerous scale, and will we ever fully comprehend the risks? And why the hell do we need a mouse who’s part-Elvis anyway?
Grow Your Own is at the Science Gallery until January 19th.
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