QUESTIONING IMMORTALITY IN THE ERA OF SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
“Eternal Commodity” investigates the human fascination and search for “Immortality”, by outlining a scenario in which current advancements in the study of the individuals’ genome are coupled with cultural practices of prediction and superstition, aiming to decipher and unravel the truths contained within DNA. Could the use of Synthetic Biology open up the doors to the achievement of personalised medicine and human biological immortality and, if so, what would be the tools and which the consequences? “Eternal Commodity” envisions a future in which the human desire to live forever will turn into an expensive privilege for few, as opposed to a more equitable life expectancy for many.
The project consists of the following parts:
-personal tool for DNA extraction and divination
-set of printed blisters containing models of GM jellyfishes
-tools for cultivation of GM jellyfish fed with individual’s DNA
The Cuspidor Machine incorporates all the steps for the patient’s DNA extraction from a saliva sample: lysis buffer, prot buffer, alcohol, heat.
The wealthy consumer desiring to achieve Biological Immortality orders the GM jellyfishes from the Genetic Monopoly.
The GM jellyfishes are programmed to react with the donor’s DNA and can not reproduce.
After extracting his own DNA with the help of the Cuspidor Machine, the patient can use it to feed and culture the expensive GM jellyfishes, previously ordered from the Genetic Monopoly. The GM modified jellyfishes are capable of absorbing, metabolising and re-combining the donor’s DNA; by doing so, the donor’s genetic code is re-written and re-sequenced, acquiring the regenerative abilities of the jellyfish. In order to ingest the cure, the donor must mutilate the jellyfish (stress factor), which will activate a process of cellular transdifferentiation, and will gradually transform in a gelatinous blob: the Medicine. Such ritual needs to be regularly performed in order to achieve the desired Bio-Immortality.
Since the beginning of recorded history Immortality has been a subject of fascination for the human being and it became, in time, a curious theme of speculation, fantasy as well as debate. Everything in earthly existence, particularly including human life in all its facets, is involved in processes of ongoing change; from an evolutionary perspective, it is common knowledge that to survive we need to evolve and for that we should be part of a birth and death process. That is why permanence seems to be unattainable, and consequently especially desirable.
In his research, Dr. Aubrey de Grey (SENS Research Foundation) developed of a series of techniques to prevent cellular damage caused by essential metabolic processes, aiming to rejuvenate the human body and stop the aging process, towards the achievement of biological immortality. However, many might argue that if biological immortality would be a dream, it would end up being a horrible nightmare, revealing itself as nothing more than a curse.
Beyond speculation, a paper titled “Reversing the Life Cycle: Medusae Transforming into Polyps and Cell Transdifferentiation in Turritopsis nutricula (S.Piraino, F.Boero, B.Aeschbach, V.Schmid, 1996)“ and further researches, have highlighted the skills of a tiny widespread medusa -the immortal jellyfish- capable of reverting completely to an immature colonial stage (polyp), by undergoing a process of cellular transdifferentiation; as if a chicken could transform into an egg, or an old man would grow ever younger, until reaching his fetal stage.
Using Synthetic Biology to understand how the genetic switches regulating the jellyfish’ reverse-development work, could open up immense possibilities in the fields of re-generative medicine and disease treatment. Furthermore, “Eternal Commodity” envisions a future where Synthetic Biology could enable Multinational Enterprises to transform the tiny jellyfish into an expensive “machine” capable of re-engineering genes and providing personalised treatments. In this context, the wealthy consumer will become directly dependent and responsible of directly taking care of the modified organism’s growth by culturing and feeding it with his/her own DNA, to reach a bio- immortal status.
This speculation arises from the current opportunities, where DNA tests are being used and becoming progressively popular, looking at the resulting data analysis to provide targeted therapies in patients suffering from various diseases (e.g. Gene Therapy in Leucemia patients), or even to address the need for preventive surgery (e.g. Angelina Jolie preventive mastectomy & public response phenomenon). Such Genetic Services are not only offered by specialised institutions, but they have been recently entering the public realm, as certain types of genetic-tests are now available in pharmacies. The danger of this new kind of Genetic-Business might be that such tests are not only failing to take into account environmental, lifestyle and epigenetics factors, but also that, being in their nascent stage of development, the results rely on “expert’s” interpretations. But if the results are read incorrectly, will getting your genome mapped be useful for your future health, or is DNA- testing more like a modern divination tool for fortune-telling?
“Eternal Commodity” elaborates on this trend outlining a future in which an engineered version of T.nutricola, capable of metabolising and combining Human DNA with its own, will be commercialised by GM lobbies, turning from a mysterious natural wonder into a highly desirable commodity and providing the access to human biological immortality.
“Eternal Commodity” sits at the intersection of Sociology and Synthetic Biology. By exploring the human desire of having answers about tomorrow, resulting from a state of profound insecurity rooted in current society, the analysis expands to cultural superstitious attitudes and to the search for immortality, as found in countless traditions and mythologies. One good example is the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, (18th century BC), where Utnapishtim reveals Gilgamesh that the secret of immortality lays in a coral found on the ocean floor… Such social phenomenon is explored by using modern divination tools, as the ones provided by Synthetic Biology, like DNA sequencing and analysis (predictions) and re- sequencing, blurring the borders between science and fortune-telling.
“Eternal Commodity” is a speculative design project investigating the potentially positive promise of personalised medicine and critically diving into the extreme consequences that could arise from current developments in the field of “Synthetic Biology”.
Turritopsis Nutricola -the immortal jellyfish- is a hydrozoan which has spread all over the world and can be found in every ocean. Due to its peculiar “lifecycle” T.nutricola is believed to be currently performing a “world silent invasion”.
Creating a parallel with examples of previously abundantly exploited resources, generated by living organisms (e.g. crude oil, gas, coffee, etc…), “Eternal Commodity” envisions a future in which the human desire of immortality will turn into an expensive privilege for few, as opposed to a more equitable life expectancy for many.
Which would be the consequences? Would an immortal population achieving biological immortality and resource abundance eventually supersede the remaining self-euthanised humanity? Would this lead to the engineering of a social elite controlling the will of the ones that cannot afford it? Having T.nutricola becoming such appetible resource, how would immortality end up affecting our evolutionary path?
“Eternal Commodity” aims to create reflections around such questions and to engage with the potential implications of future discoveries and applications, by looking at the way such technologies will be used in re-designing biology and nature, while seeking a more complete understanding of what nature is or could be.
Particularly, the visionary project has the objective of creating a discussion about the role that Multinational Corporations and Governmental Agencies play in ruling the “Synthetic Biology” era and about the resulting dangerous consequences that could originate from such player’s policies, if the game would be left exclusively in their hands.
Furthermore, the somehow negative, futuristic storytelling constituting the project, invites the public to take part in the conversation, aiming to challenge the audience and provoke critical reflections, while altering the direction in which a more desirable future will be shaped and developed; by triggering and promoting the development of an understanding and interest in liberating fields such as DIY Synthetic Biology, Genetics, etc., such process of democratisation of knowledge and techniques could allow the educated citizenry to cross the bridge into the future together and become collectively empowered, by growing a capacity to “control” more closely our future developments and “evolution”.