This just in from science: One far-off day, a human woman might be able to incubate and give birth to a dolphin. This isn’t a sea-world sequel to Stuart Little, but one of the subjects explored in “Grow Your Own: Life After Nature,” a groundbreaking new exhibit at Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery. It’s a flagship show about synthetic biology, an emerging field of genetic engineering.
“For the first time, we can potentially design things that we want from the DNA up,” says curator Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, winner of the World Technology Award for Design in 2011. “The question is, what do we want?” On display is the work of 21 scientists, engineers, biohackers, artists, and designers that attempts to address this existential question, revealing what the applications of synthetic life could mean for us in the future.
Here, we meet the Rodent King of Rock n’ Roll: a mouse cloned from Elvis Presley’s DNA. For his installation All That I Am, Koby Barhard bought strands of Elvis’s hair on eBay, then isolated specific behavioral traits, like addiction, sociability, and obesity. A lab applied this information to creating transgenic Elvis mouse models, made-to-order mice clones possessing parallel traits to the King himself (sorry, no capes). In one cage, a distorted mirror gives a false sense of self-importance, representing the effects of fame. Another has a sloped treadmill where the mouse model runs until it falls off, symbolizing the rock legend’s death.
So will some of our great-great-grandchildren really be sea creatures? That’s the question raised by Ai Hasegawa’s profoundly creepy installation, I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin. Hasegawa asks, in an overpopulated world stricken with food shortages, would a woman ever consider incubating and giving birth to an endangered species like a tuna, dolphin, or shark? He imagines a “dolphin-human” placenta that would allow her to grow her own food in her uterus. (Would eating your dolphin baby not count as infanticide? Pro-lifers will have a whole new game to play.)
In The Great Work of the Metal Lover, tiny alchemical organisms called extremophiles harvest pure gold from a toxic chloride solution. Then there’s Stranger Visions, 3-D printed heads based on the stolen DNA of Dublin smokers. In E.Chromi, a yogurt drink produces disease-diagnosing excrement. In Selfmade, cheese is cultured from bacteria collected from human armpits, toes, and noses. Among dozens of other innovative thinkers featured is Agatha Haines, whose circumventive human organs, designed from eel, snake, and leech parts, were covered by Co.Design this summer.
In June, a group of synthetic biologists successfully funded a Kickstarter project to create glowing plants that could take us one step closer to sustainable natural lighting. “Biohacking, or DIYbio, has got to be one of the most exciting subcultures active today,” says Cathal Garvey, a biohacker and Science Gallery Leonardo. Grow Your Own looks forward and asks, “How might designed life merge into our own? Where is the boundary between our things and our selves: the designed products that we consume, and our own bodies and identities?” These questions are utterly mind-boggling when examined in the context of dolphin-human placentas, rockstar mice, and gold made from amoeba poop.
Grow Your Own: Life After Nature is on view at the Trinity College Dublin Science Gallery until January 19.