By Rob DeSalle

"The Farm," reproduced with permission of Alexis Rockman


About a decade ago, I had the great pleasure to spend some time in the studio of a well-known New York City artist who was interested in the then burgeoning and often over-publicized science of genetic modification of animals and plants. 

This inquisitive artist was Alexis Rockman, a painter with a reputation among his colleagues for paintings "depicting nature and its intersections with humanity," and "painstakingly executed paintings and watercolors of the phenomena of natural history."

The interaction was as timely as it was interesting. Alexis knew little about the techniques of genetic modification or genomics, but was- and continues to be-a superb natural history artist. Meanwhile, I had just begun to curate an exhibition on the human genome and genetic technology at the American Museum of Natural History entitled "Genomic Revolution." Thus began our relationship: an artist and a scientist talking every Thursday afternoon about genetic technology over coffee in his studio.

Some of the topics that Alexis wanted to discuss seemed pretty bizarre. However peculiar the topic, I would first try to explain the technology to Alexis and then would add an extra layer of science once we felt comfortable with the primer and its jargon. Throughout this process, it became immediately obvious to me that as he was soaking up the material, Alexis was worried that some of the genetically modified versions of animals would impact our natural world.

After about two months of my genomics "tutorial," Alexis dismissed me and began work on a piece of art he was later to call "The Farm."  I left the last meeting with some apprehension about the art that might come from our conversations.  While I felt that Alexis possessed a firm general understanding of genetic technology, I was- and continue to be- wary of how an artist or an author might take creative license with science.

While walking in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City one fall day in 2000, I looked up at a huge billboard at the intersection of Lafayette & Houston Streets. The billboard stunned me. Erected by an organization called DNAid, it featured Alexis' "The Farm" in all of its glory. Since I had only seen sketches of some of Alexis' ideas, I was blown away by the immensity of the piece, by its vividness and candor. Through his strong understanding of natural history, Alexis strove to create an awareness about the existence of plant and animal ancestral forms among his audience.  More specifically, Alexis wanted his audience to understand that all living organisms-not just plants and animals- have ancestral forms. To facilitate this understanding, Alexis painted certain domestic animals while including the "ancestral" versions of them. Hence, we see chickens, swine, cattle, wild mice, and domestic crops in the background of the painting. It is purposefully ironic that each of these domestic forms has its wild form that existed probably at most 20,000 years ago, when domestication began. 

In the foreground, a slew of genetically modified organisms lurk near a barbwire fence. All of these peculiar creatures came from Alexis' thinking about the extent and limits of genetic modification. The painting includes an interesting menagerie with plants, such as  tomatoes, grown in cube-like shapes; a mouse with an ear growing off of its back; a rather porcine pig with human organs growing inside it; and a large cow I can only describe as "Schwarzeneggerish." As bizarre as the painting's modified organisms look, they were, as Alexis suggests in the description that accompanied the piece, informed by reality. 

I thought it might be interesting to look at these four modified organisms a decade later to see how well-informed the artist was in drawing them and what their status is now. Let's start with the geometrically bizarre domestic plants. I recall from our conversations that Alexis was already aware of "Flavr Savr," one company's attempt to genetically modify tomatoes to maintain freshness, but he was particularly taken aback by the possibility of genetically modifying things to change their shape. The square tomatoes in "The Farm" would be much more easily and efficiently packaged. Alas, Flavr Savr went bust around the time Alexis produced the piece, and to my knowledge no genetically modified cube tomato has been produced.

Perhaps the most peculiar animal in the piece is the mouse with a human ear attached to it. I recall that Alexis and I had discussed the potential of using non-human animals as culturing media for human organs. In 2000, this idea was very prevalent in the news, so I didn't label this fascination as "bizarre"; rather, I thought that his questions about the topic were timely and warranted. In fact, the pig with the human organs growing inside it was also a popular news story at that time. 

The "earmouse" (also known as the Vacanti mouse) actually did not have a human ear growing out of it. The "ear" consisted of a gob of cow cartilage grown in the shape of an ear. It was produced not by genetic engineering, but by inserting a polyester fabric that had been soaked with cow cartilage cells under the skin of an immunocompromised mouse. Pigs as donors of human organs, meanwhile, are something we may see in our lifetime. Some pig organs, including their hearts, are about the same size and have the same general plumbing as human organs, and scientists have suggested that pigs might be a good source of organs for human transplants. Like any transplantation, though, tissue rejection is an important consideration, and some genetic modification of the pigs to overcome rejection would be needed. While this might seem farfetched-especially when Alexis produced "The Farm," over ten years ago-the possibility has been resurrected as a result of work in 2009 in China producing pig stem cell cultures. Such cultures can be used as an easier method to genetically modify pigs to circumvent the rejection problem. A year later, Australian scientists genetically modified a line of pigs by removing a stretch of a single chromosome in order to alleviate the rejection problem and allow experiments with lung transplants to proceed. 

The last animal in Alexis' menagerie is the Incredible Hulk Cow. "Double-muscled" cows do exist, such as the Belgian Blue and the Piedmontese. These breeds have a defective myostatin gene which would otherwise, when expressed normally, slow muscle cell growth in a developing cow. However, these breeds came about through conventional breeding, not genetic modification. To my knowledge, super-muscular cows have not been successfully engineered, although researchers are working on several other bovine genetic engineering tricks, including cows with altered genes to improve the conversion of milk to cheese or engineered for resistance to mad cow disease.

While only one of the bioengineered animals in Alexis's menagerie still exists today-pigs being developed as organ donors-ten years later, Alexis's "The Farm" still makes a compelling statement about technology and nature. We are in the midst of our second generation of genetic modification (the first being the initial domestication of plants and animals), and we have not yet figured out how to proceed. Alexis draws attention to the fundamental novelty of genetic engineering in depicting the progression of domesticated animals as beginning with already-domesticated forms, subtly omitting their wild ancestors.

All of this reminds me of a conversation that I had with an uncle who is a farmer in upstate New York. Over a beer in the shade of a barn, we were talking about how farming has changed since he was a young man. During the conversation, I excitedly tried to explain to him the possibility of using plants with a genetically engineered gene involved in stress tolerance. This gene would be linked to a luminescent beacon, so that when the plants were under drought stress, the beacon would glow, telling the farmer to water it. My uncle looked at me incredulously and said, "Now how good of a farmer would I be if I couldn't tell my crops needed water?"

Rob DeSalle, PhD, is a curator in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Invertebrate Zoology and co-director of its molecular laboratories and a member of CRG's Board of Directors.

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