[Here's the raw feed of my mindmeld with concept artist Jonathon Keats, whose yeast-based art cloning of Barack Obama and Lady Gaga is making cats mad at Wired. Check out the director's cut of that article here at Morphizm.]
Morphizm: Did you just opensource cloning? I want to make sure I’ve got my scoop correct.
Jonathon Keats: All living organisms are open-source. Genetics is all about freely swapping genes, whether by horizontal gene transfer or through sexual intercourse. And it took billions of years of open-source tinkering to make humans who could come up with systems for patenting everything from iPhones to life itself.
Given that bacteria were freely cloning themselves in the Precambrian era, I don’t want to take undue credit for making cloning open-source. But it’s true that ever since humans got into this cloning business, they’ve been keen to patent it, or to keep their procedures secret, and I’m seeking to bring it back out into the open by developing and sharing processes that anyone can take up.
Cloning is going to become a part of our lives whether we like it or not, so we might as well take control of it. This is a way that anyone with a Walgreens or CVS in their neighborhood can participate.
Morphizm: Does this mean that interview I’ve always wanted with John Lennon is within reach? (Should I ask Yoko?)
Jonathon Keats: You could certainly clone John Lennon epigenetically, and you could do it without the permission of Yoko or anyone else. All you need is to analyze factors such as his environment and biochemical intake. I’m guessing that would include a lot of pot. You could epigenetically clone Lennon on a cellular level in yeast, and investigate his metabolic pathways. Or you could epigenetically clone him in yourself, and then whatever you said would be in his voice.
Morphizm: If I understand both saccharomyces cerevisiae and epigenetic expression, you’ve now made it possible to really create a piece of toast with Jesus in it. How’s my math on that?
Jonathon Keats: Actually you could carry the concept even further. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is an ingredient in both bread and wine, the two components of the Eucharist. If you were to epigenetically clone Jesus in the yeast used to leaven your bread and ferment your wine, you wouldn’t require transubstantiation for them to become the body and blood of Christ. That could be highly convenient, and if the Vatican is interested, I’d be happy to discuss it with them.
Morphizm: Gawker and People? Did Wired fail the personal data harvest?
Jonathon Keats: Unlike celebrity magazines, Wired isn’t diet obsessed, and therefore is not an especially useful resource when it comes to reconstructing Lady Gaga’s biochemical intake. That said, it’s early days for epigenetic cloning. In the future the stimuli will not only be biochemical. Especially for human-to-human epigenetic cloning, I’m also looking to simulate stress levels, perhaps using transcranial electrostimulation or even music. (Apparently you can really traumatize someone with heavy metal, like the US government did to Noriega.) Working out the level of stress in the life of the person to be cloned will require the sort of information found in magazine profiles, and I can foresee Wired being a fine resource since Wired has profiled some excellent subjects from Jon Stewart to William Gibson. Of course Wired has also covered Steve Jobs in depth, though I think that one of him might have been enough.
Morphizm: Also, do tell about the human-human epigenetic cloning. That should be fun, except for the privacy invasions.
Jonathon Keats: Cloning humans in yeast is limited by the fact that yeast is a single-cell organism and people are multicellular. So a yeast clone of Michael Phelps is only going to be like Phelps to a limited extent. It might make some of the same proteins as him, but it isn’t going to win any gold medals in swimming or look good in a Louis Vuitton ad.
So the obvious next step is to epigenetically clone humans in other human beings. That’s done using essentially the same technique as I use for yeast, analyzing the target subject’s diet and modifying the biochemical intake of the person undergoing the cloning process by administering appropriate drugs. So if you’re cloning George Washington, whose dentures compelled him to eat mostly fish, that would mean a vast amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and also vast quantities of sodium since the fish he ate was often preserved with salt. I’m also offering people the opportunity to become epigenetic clones of popular historical figures including Queen Elizabeth I and Jesus Christ, as well as taking commissions. And I’ve bottled a simple daily complex that people can take if they want to become my clone. The complex contains lots of amino acids, and thiamine, and of course caffeine.
I don’t see this as an invasion of privacy, but rather a distribution of identity. In other words, speaking for myself, each of me will have an independent private life. We’ll each pursue our own notion of who I am. I’ll have multiple realities, and if we ever want to integrate, we’ll enlist Mechanical Turk.
Morphizm: Speaking of, let’s get futuristic and pretend this goes horribly wrong. What are we looking at?
Well I would hate to see how the prison system might use this technology to ‘reform’ inmates, making them the epigenetic clones of nice people like Mr. Rogers by force-feeding them whatever Mr. Rogers ate. Even worse would be a government that sought to make a populace totally compliant by enforcing epigenetic homogeneity. Then again there already are plenty of countries where people are treated as expendably interchangeable by governments that refuse to recognize them as individuals.
Morphizm: Also, given what you know about epigenetic expression, and our current physical and psychological states, what kind of planet and people do you think our environment is cooking up this second?
Jonathon Keats: If you want to see epigenetics in action, just look at the ever-rising level of obesity in the United States. In a sense, McDonalds is running an accidental (and uncontrolled) epigenetic experiment, given how many people they’re regularly feeding the same chemicals. Is fast food making us a nation of clones? Taking into account what I just said above, an autocratic government may not even be needed to breed a perfectly complacent populace.
Morphizm: Are you taking this on the road? I’m wondering how this would go over in Asia.
At present my plans are to open a laboratory for epigenetic cloning in New York City, where basic research in yeast cells will be undertaken, and to open an epigenetic cloning agency in San Francisco, where cloning will be offered to the public as a service.
The epigenetic cloning lab will be located at the AC Institute, opening on September 13th and the cloning agency will be at Modernism Gallery, opening on October 11th.
I would be very interested in establishing franchises, and I agree that Asia has potential. Singapore has developed quite an industry in pet cloning, the success of which can only be explained by the degree to which people identify with their dogs and cats. What if people could take their relationship even deeper through epigenetic cloning? I’m not proposing that poodles and persians should be made into epigenetic clones of their masters, since the animals have no say in the matter. But I see no reason — technically or ethically — why devoted pet owners couldn’t become epigenetic clones of their animals by consuming whatever their pets ingest.