A groundbreaking new exhibit called "Grow Your Own: Life After Nature" is now on view at Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery. It’s a flagship show about synthetic biology, an emerging field of genetic engineering. Here, the "Elvis mouse model," made-to-order mice clones possessing parallel traits to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg's Stranger Visions, 3-D printed heads based on the stolen DNA of Dublin smokers. "The question behind Stranger Visions came to me as I was sitting in a therapy session," she says. "Staring at a generic print on the wall, I noticed that the glass covering the print was cracked and in that crack was lodged a single hair. I became fascinated by this hair. Whose hair was it? What might they look like, act like, think about? How much could I know about a person from a single hair?"

In Selfmade, cheese is cultured from bacteria collected from human armpits, toes, and noses. "Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet. Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies?" asks biohacker Christina Agapakis.

In I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin, Ai Hasegawa creates a human-dolphin placenta. "This project is about growing your own food in your uterus with the help of synthetic biology technology. Humans always take from nature, but this time they try to donate their reproductive resources," says Hawsegawa. "Also, they might be able to eat this expensive delicacy after the end of these rare animals’ natural lives."

The Scatalog, part of the E.Chromi installation, a collaboration between designers and synthetic biologists. "They designed standardized sequences of DNA, known as BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria ... [The] bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they detect a toxin. E. chromi won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM)," says curator Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Agatha Haines's Circumventive Organs: human organs improved using parts of leech, eel, and rattlesnake anatomy.

"Blighted by Kenning centers on bioengineered bacteria with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA. The DNA was extracted from the bacteria and used to ‘contaminate’ apples grown at The Hague, the seat of the International Courts of Justice. These ‘forbidden fruits’ were then sent to genomics laboratories around the world. Participating scientists were asked to sequence the DNA, find the message hidden within, and send back a translation. They were also invited to eat the fruit."

A still from New Mumbai, a fictional documentary, by Tobias Revell, that tells the story of the fungi that ended up hugging the walls of Dharavi.

"In The Great Work of the Metal Lover a specific colony of anaerobic microbes are literally grown in a synthetic biological system resulting in the precipitation of gold ... Interestingly, the Earth’s lakes and oceans contain vast quantities of dissolved gold, perhaps as much as $10 trillion worth, though in dilute concentrations. Because of its form, it is virtually unusable," says artist Adam Brown.

"Synthetic biology is an exciting new field that fuses the practice of engineering design with the manipulation of biological systems at the genetic level," says Paul Freemont, co-founder of the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London. "One profound technological development, DNA sequencing, allows the rapid automatic reading of genetic code or genomes from any living organism (including humans) by a machine."

Co.Design

Crazy Bio-Hacks: A Mouse Cloned From Elvis's DNA And A Human-Born Dolphin

Grow Your Own, a new exhibition about synthetic biology, features mindblowing bio-hacked creations.

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.

Photo by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

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.)

Image: Courtesy of Science Gallery

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.

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3 Comments

  • Alex

    The article is badly researched and does not clarify which projects in the exhibition are real and which are fictional. The Elvis mouse is fictional and it is important to say that. Also, Ai Hasegawa is a she and not a he.