Imagining future ecologies has a singular way of piquing curiosity and challenging our conventional notions of “life,” but in so doing, tends to delve into the frightening and grotesque. Grow Your Own… Life After Nature opened at Science Gallery in Dublin this week with several projects that give us a glimpse into the biological strangeness that may be coming our way. Here’s a selection of speculative works, including several from Grow Your Own..., along with some of the science that will usher us into the transhuman epoch.
Elvis Presley the mouse
There’s an age-old conspiracy that Elvis Presley is still alive and All That I Am provides us an unusual confirmation. After purchasing a lock of Elvis’ hair on eBay for the bargain price of $22 (£14.21), RCA graduate Koby Barhad sent the sample for genetic sequencing and then contracted a biotech company to create a transgenic animal. So, meet Elvis the mouse. Barhad wasn’t yet satisfied his mouse was truly the King, so he proceeded to recreate events from Elvis’ life in mouse proportion – mini Graceland and all. In addition to a commentary on the absurdism of celebrity and the lengths to which people go to immortalize an individual, Barhad raises some tough ethical issues about ownership of personal identity. If I’m in possession of someone else’s genetic material, to what extent can I use that information?
Give birth to a dolphin
Japanese artist Ai Hasegawa’s I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin serves more as a critical object than genuine prediction, but it may still be the most prescient work included in Grow Your Own… With impending food shortages as a result of overpopulation, compounded by reductions in arable land due to climate change, there’s little debate the politics of food will come to the fore in the near future. Hasegawa asks: what if we could give birth to an endangered species instead of hunting them into extinction? How would humans growing their own food (literally) change the nature of our relationship to what we eat? Her piece questions our assumptions about motherhood, but serves to deprivilege human life over that of the ecosystems on which we depend.
Grow your own organ
Also among the works included in Grow Your Own… is Circumventive Organs, a speculative study of human transgenics, in which artist and Royal College of Art graduate Agatha Haines imagines purpose-built chimeric organs that could act as medical aids. A patient prone to stroke, for example, could be implanted with a small organ containing cells derived from the saliva gland of a leech, ‘naturally’ producing anticoagulants to prevent clotting. While Haines’ creations are still silicone facsimiles, significant advances in stem cell therapies may just place these alternative organs within the realm of possibility.
The new human surrogate
A kind of precursor to Hasegawa’s piece is the work of American psychologist Dr. Harry Harlow on the importance of maternal care in the development of primates. Though his experiments are considered unethical by today’s standards, they were instrumental to our current understanding of behavioral disorders and child development. Which leads us to Yale University’s new initiative, backed by a $10 million dollar grant, to develop socially assistive robots that will help teach children with reading, physical fitness, and overcoming cognitive disabilities, the new human surrogates. Researchers are adamant these robots won’t replace traditional parenting.
Design life in the lab
This lab-grown bug, nicknamed Synthia, is the first ever synthetic, scientist-designed organism. The bacterium was the result of the Minimal Genome Project, an initiative in which the genome of another organism, Mycoplasma genitalium, was stripped of all nonessential material and then swapped with that of another bacterium Mycoplasma capricolum, at which point the new genetic program took over. Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute then took the morally questionable step of filing patents on the genome with the hopes they could use the organism as a cheap means of producing alternative fuels or, alternatively, commercialize a variant that would aid in the growing carbon dioxide capture market. The final ruling on the patentability of genetic information is still a ways off but designer organisms are sure to make their way into a bioreactor near you.
If transgenic organs still seem far fetched, how about simply growing a living human brain in a petri dish? (Or at least part of one.) Scientists recently coaxed human stem cells to differentiate into radial glia, a type of neural tissue. By injecting the stem cells into a nutrient matrix with just the right conditions, they were able to jump start the development of what they call “cerebral organoids,” that is, structures with defined regions that correspond to recognizable parts of normal human brains. One such region was akin to cerebral cortex, the area responsible for much of our sensory processing, language, and higher cognitive function. If that wasn't weird enough, researchers were also able to detect neurons actively firing in their lab grown creations – just like a real brain.
Colour your excrement
Rather than vaguely hitting up WebMD for a sponsored diagnosis, this project in Grow Your Own... promises to make staying healthy as easy as going to the bathroom. E.chromi, a thought experiment and collaboration between designers and scientists, consists of a probiotic beverage with specially engineered bacteria that recognize compounds whose presence indicate a particular ailment. After ingestion, the culture inhabits your digestive tract until it encounters a specific chemical signiture that triggers a metabolic reaction, ultimately yielding an easily recognizable colour that you then excrete in your fecal waste. So, literally, your diagnosis is poop.
Upgrade your brain
Brain interfaces are a favorite topic at Dazed, but an article about transumanism wouldn’t be complete without at least one cyborgian talking point. This April, an article published in the journal Science, detailed how MIT researchers had successfully implanted a false memory into a mouse via electrostimulation of the hippocampus. Intriguingly, this opens up the possibility for humans to have direct interfaces with computers in order to access “prosthetic knowledge,” a phrase turned by this excellent Tumblr but something with which we’re all intimately familiar in a crude sense: the ability to access information through the use of technology – and thereby extending the possibilities of human memory.
Copy and paste your genes
In 2003, China made available a therapy for squamous cell carcinoma, a kind of skin cancer – but they rushed through clinical trials and there has been little word on new gene therapies since. But as of today, the US and Europe both have several therapies in late-stage clinical trials (the large proportion for treatment of cancer). But two issues still plague current methods – limited ability to create a wide range of genetic modifications, and a tendency to cause inadvertent damage elsewhere in the genome. But last year the synthetic biology community found what is essentially the copy-paste function of designer genetics, a group of proteins called TALENs which accurately recognize any any region in the genome in order to make clean insertions or deletions. It’s just a matter of time before you can order up a change to your own genetic code.
A vision of a post-human future
Rounding out our list is the speculative biology luminary, Dougal Dixon, with his taxonomy of nightmarish posthuman creatures catalogued in Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future. Dougal, a geologist by training, maps out a detailed chronology of the human race for the next 5 million years that starts with a little genetic engineering and then takes a sharp turn into the impossibly weird. You can view some of his nightmarish creatures here.
Follow Sam Hart on Twitter here @hxrts