Life & Biotechnology

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The facts of life are becoming increasingly malleable in the age of biotechnology. We conducted a biodiversity survey at the Multispecies Salon to take inventory of organisms that have been created by humans.

"Alzheimer Portraits" by Andre Brodyk

The exhibit featured Andre Brodyk’s “Alzheimer’s Portraits”, which were painted with transgenic bacteria created by this Australian artist. Lines of living bacteria in Petri dishes illuminated the faces of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The portraits started out bright and distinct (left). As the paintings aged, they faded into darkness—just like the memory and personality of people afflicted with Alzheimer’s (right). They suggest a longing for lost identities. Brodyk says they depict no-one in particular. Dredged from Brodyk’s own uneven memories, they are images of what any of us might become. Ghosts from the past merge into prognostic futures.

The transgenic bacteria that Brodyk created to paint these portraits included “non-sense” regions of the human genome, or, in popular parlance, “junk DNA.” He isolated a 158 base-pair fragment from the human gene for apolipoprotein E (APOE), a protein that helps to carry fat in the bloodstream. One form of this gene, APOE ε4, is associated with a marginal increase in the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s. Instead of using DNA that actually codes for the protein, however, Brodyk chose his fragment from one of the four segments that are regarded as junk, since they have not been ascribed a biological function.

Genetic junk interests Brodyk since it lies at the very edge of the boundary between living and inanimate matter. “Can non-coding DNA be given a new lease of life through modern biotech processes?” he asks. The uncertain hopes Brodyk places in these genetic fragments, speaks to broader dreams and nightmares that are orbiting around emergent forms of life. Amidst speculation about scientific breakthroughs on future horizons, new forms of life are running wild.

Three chapters in the book speak to the theme of LIFE & BIOTECHNOLOGY:

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