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Elevate Talk: Human DNA in a petunia

Robert Zwijnenberg, Professor of Art and Science Exchange at Leiden University, named human DNA in a petunia as one of the examples how visual artists question the ethics and aesthetics of new biotechnologies. Because what should we find of technologies that implant human stem cells in sheep and pigs to grow a human heart or kidney in their bodies? Once the organs have matured, they are removed from the animal, whereupon the animal dies.

Make egg cells from skin cells

And why should embryos be genetically modified to remove a gene that causes blindness? The blind in America reacted indignantly. Being blind is part of them. Men who can have children? Egg cells can be made from their skin cells. They can fertilize them with their own seed. Until a certain moment of cell division outside a human body, the fertilized egg is placed in the womb of a ‘donor woman’ until the child is born.
To ‘infect’ a rat with Alzheimer’s disease to better investigate its effects?
With CRISPR fixing ‘errors’ in embryos, such as removing heart failure and preventing it from being passed on?

Role of visual art

How ethically responsible is the application of these techniques? According to Zwijnenberg, visual art plays an important role in answering these questions. ‘Art must reveal, complicate and dispute, be as hard and radical as biotechnology.’
And not just transferring your own DNA in a petunia is an already performed example. For example, Maja Smrekar had one of her egg cells fertilized by her dog. Adam Zaretsky was involved in zebra fish; the head of a zebrafish embryo was ‘pasted’ on another zebrafish embryo, so that it got two heads. Or manipulate pheasant embryos into an embryo with four legs. Marion Laval Jeantet was injected with the blood of her favorite horse, she felt stronger and more sensitive.

Experiments and the hierarchy between humans and animals

What do these experiments say about the hierarchy between humans and animals? Can a person use an animal in this way? Is it abuse? Zwijnenberg mentioned two statements. The first and yet somewhat easy: it is human nature to go to the limit. If we did not, we would still have lived in a cave. The other, in his view, much more plausible proposition: we must guard the core that makes us human. ‘The aforementioned artists investigate this outside the narrative of science, which by definition presents results from biotechnology as positive outcomes.´

Report: Carla van Gaalen