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Epigenetics inspires philosophical experiments

An artist's conception of epigenetic cloning

Jonathon Keats

The man in the bow tie says he can transform you into anyone you want. At the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, California, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats is applying his ‘experimental philosophy’ to epigenetics, one of the hottest and most rapidly advancing fields in biology. The art exhibit opened this weekend.

Billing himself as a ‘dispensing epigeneticist’, Keats explained the logic behind his services: organisms are similar genetically. It’s epigenetics — control over how genes are turned on and off — that matters, and gene expression is determined by the environment. Therefore, by simulating key environmental factors, one can perform what Keats calls epigenetic cloning, a transformation without handling any DNA.

Instead, says Keats, transformations will be performed through concentrated exposure to select pollutants, electrical simulation of emotional crises and appropriately altered diets. George Washington, for example, ate a lot of salted fish, so an epigenetic cloning regime would include high exposure to sodium and omega-3 fatty acids. Keats is also working to epigenetically clone Barack Obama and Lady Gaga starting from Baker’s yeast. Although he does not expect the cloned cultures to physically resemble their counterparts, he suspects that other similarities will emerge.

Keats’s specialty is dressing the absurd in scientific trappings to prompt thinking. He pushes emerging concepts to extremes and sees what they collide with. An earlier project attempted to classify god phylogenetically. Keats reasoned that the world’s divinities probably formed their own taxonomic domain, but wondered whether it was most closely related to Archaea, Bacteria or Eukarya. (Experiments compared how much fruitflies and microbes proliferated during exposure to a variety of sacred music or a control treatment of talk radio; results suggested that Divinea is most closely related to cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.)

Keats does not prescribe what lessons viewers are to draw from his exhibit. Perhaps they are to reassess concepts of nature, nurture and destiny. Or perhaps he wants to paint a scientific veneer onto risible concepts and so prompt people to separate the cutting edge from the ridiculous. Whatever the intention, the exhibit certainly was introducing attendees to new ideas. Only a minority said they had heard of epigenetics before learning about it from the exhibit.

One visitor had already made the conceptual leap from epigenetic cloning to hybridization. She described her own recipe for a new self. “I’d like to be one-third Madam Pompadour, one-third Queen Elizabeth and a smattering of Jonathon Keats.”

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