As I sat down to write about Oryx and Crake just now, it struck me that most of my fellow seminar mates probably don’t have much immediate experience with transgenic ‘bioforms.’ I, however, got to create one. So I thought I’d talk generally about what that experience was like.
Now, I wasn’t creating pigoons or anything–this was just my senior molecular biology lab project, which meant it had to get done in the course of a semester, and that meant sticking with the prokaryotic life. The overall process was actually pretty simple, too. I broke up some bacteria, isolated a plasmid, snipped it up with some restriction enzymes at the closest restriction spot to where we needed to stick the GFP DNA, and then roughly did the same thing for the DNA. This gave me identical “sticky ends” (yes, that is the technical term) for two different types of DNA. I threw them together with some DNA ligase, and they stuck together, with the GFP DNA neatly inserted into the bacterial plasmid of some. Then I got the plasmid into another bacteria, cloned ’em up, and then tested to see if my GFP tag ‘stuck’. (Granted, this is a pretty massive simplification of the major steps–my lab was actually a bit more complicated…I used phages for the transformation, for one thing, and amplified the protein production, but the basic steps still hold.)
At the end of the semester, everyone in the class all gathered around a UV light with Eppendorf tubes of our purified proteins (every lab group had a different protein to tag) to see if any actually glowed. One by one, we put our tubes under the light, and all marveled over our spectacular failures. By the time my group got to check, the entire class was thoroughly disheartened with our collective performance. But my tube glowed, and it was bright: massive success. There was great rejoicing.
I wish I could say that I was stunned at what I’d done. This marriage of jellyfish and bacterial DNA was clearly more than theoretically possible…it was in my hand. Not only that, but my hands brought it about. I didn’t have to read about it in a journal…I could just look down and see the proof. It should have been a sort of ‘the sky’s the limit’ moment, I guess. It should have made me feel god-like. Instead, I just sort of shrugged. It was no big deal. It was a bacterium; I can’t even remember which species now. I was happy that I showed up my more skilled classmates and annoyed that the whole process took so long (an entire semester of 3-4 hour long labs, plus random extra sessions!), but that was about it.
Funnily enough, when I was a biology student, I forgot about animals an awful lot. It was doubly easy to do this if you weren’t directly studying the ‘charismatic macrofauna.’ They were just variables to me, tools. In fact, I did remarkably little with individual lifeforms. My coursework was sharply divided between molecular biology and community ecology: proteins or interspecies behavior–the smallest and largest parts of life, both reduced to pretty abstract data points.
I guess what I’m saying is that you think there should be a horror or an awe associated with creating transgenic species. But strong emotions don’t really factor into the process. By the time you have a success, you’re so wrapped in the process its so, so easy to forget what it is you’ve actually done. It’s become familiar, and that’s scary.
I think art helps counteract this. Art defamiliarizes the familiar and–especially in this case–can re-establish perspective. I’d love to see more art like Atwood’s novel or Kac’s pieces, and I’d love to hear them discussed more. It is something I think both the scientific and the popular communities need. I really hate to say it, especially like this, but occasional reminders of “with great power comes great responsibility” can hardly go amiss.
YouTube video of something vaguely similar to what I did. They’re not trying to target a particular protein, I don’t think. It’s a 10 minute long video, dully narrated.
YouTube video of some really charismatic macrofauna. Otter research must be so well funded…