Playing genetics

Move over Furby, there’s a new toy in town. Welcome to the next generation of childhood entertainment, where the line blurs between cutting edge genetics and hours of endless fun with ‘the only bioengineered buddies’ around. Genpets™, according to specifications listed in the catalogue, are ‘living, breathing mammals’ available with seven different personality types, a fully functional heart monitor with LED display, and even a handy sell-by date mechanism to guarantee freshness of the creature upon purchase. These organic, mass-produced pets are allergen-free, child-safe, low-maintenance, and ‘life-perfected’ through to their very core. According to Bio-Genica, the bio-research company responsible for manufacturing the Genpet line, the models you see were grown in assisted breeding lab farms and produced based on an original prototype created using a process called ‘Zygote Micro Injection’. They also resemble a mix of something out of The Gremlins and Alien: Resurrection, which is why by now you should probably realize that they’re actually not real. ‘Genpets’ is in fact an award-winning work of art by Canadian sculptor, programmer and designer Adam Brandejs. Launched in 2005, it has since been displayed in museums and galleries worldwide, along with its site having been a sensational hit with millions of visitors.

But shockingly enough, zygote micro-injection does indeed exist — a method of combining DNA by inserting certain proteins from different species into a fertilized cell. According to Brandejs’ statement about his performance project, ‘In 1985, the US Patents and Trademarks Office ruled that genetically engineered plants, seeds and animal tissue could all be patented’. Today, this has led to agricultural crops being modified (GM food) and human DNA being injected into animal eggs to create part-human, part-animal hybrid embryos. And it is this precise issue amongst others that Brandejs wants viewers of his Genpets to think about. Aside from being a brilliantly thought-out example of bio-hacking for the new millennium (or else may be seen as simply a hoax by some), it highlights the ethical implications of genetic engineering technologies so rapidly advancing today. Stories abound on the newswire already indicate the possibility of soon one day having superhumanly attractive and intelligent ‘test-tube babies‘ be only a doctor’s visit away. But what of the increasingly popular process of DNA screening that allows parents-to-be to selectively cull embryos in the hope that their child will have been spared inheriting genetic predisposition towards various forms of disease?

Posing several tough but very much needed questions regarding the fundamental alteration of the lives of animals and humans, the underlying message of Genpets and Bio-Genica is one more relevant — if not worryingly pressing — than ever.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Juan Enriquez on genomics and our future (TED Talks)