In her 13th Gwangju Biennale commission Twisted Gravity, which is being developed at Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Lynn Hershman Leeson engages with the latest in applied science. The project employs AquaPulse, an off-the-grid water filter that kills bacteria and degrades plastic with electricity, and the Evolution system, which uses smart bacteria to dissolve and digest plastic. Exemplary of her life-long commitment to addressing questions of gender, identity, surveillance, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and genetic engineering, this interview was conducted in 2017 at Harvard Medical School Lab with Dr. George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The discussion centered on regeneration, the shifting borders of life, biosurveillance, migration from Earth to colonies in outer space, and the ethical boundaries around archiving material on DNA.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Is it true that you are archiving film now by converting it into DNA? What is it that you do?
George Church: For most of my career, I’ve been part of a team developing exponentially improving technologies to read and write DNA. Finding a way to put those together into a system for the archival storage of digital and analogue information seemed like a natural thing to do in 2012. We can store the information either in biological systems or in completely non-biological systems. When stored in the latter, best possible way, the information is probably stable for a million years. Nothing changes in a desiccated form. If information is stored in biological systems, it’s usually intended for much shorter-term storage, meant to interface with complex systems like the brain or medical systems, like a black box recording. In that case, we don’t really care how stable the systems are, as long as they accurately reflect the physiological state as a function of time. My lab, along with Microsoft, and Technicolor have stored a number of videos in DNA. In fact we’ve encoded a 1902 film into a digital format; first it became digital zeroes and ones which are essentially very easy to map onto genetic As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. But we can also go directly from analogue data into DNA.
LHL: And what about projecting it or reconverting it?
GC: Showing it is the same as showing a digital film. So, in a digital film there are no photons inside your disc drive. The DNA is reconverted so that it can be read off the disc drive and then projected onto a screen or displayed on a monitor.
LHL: What films have you restored this way?
GC: Voyage to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) is the 1902 movie we converted to digital zeros and ones and then to DNA, and then back to zeros and ones, and then back to a displayable movie. You can’t tell the difference—the colors, the sound, and so on, are exactly the same.
LHL: Why that film?
GC: It was chosen by Technicolor… It was possibly their most precious film, in that the director and producer Georges Méliès became disillusioned towards the end of his life and tried to destroy all of his films. Everyone thought he had destroyed this classic, and first colorized film. Each frame was hand colored with transparent paints. They eventually found a copy that wasn’t in great shape, and they restored it manually, with great labor. Then they made digital backups, but they’re in the business of archiving. They wanted to archive this film in as permanent a way as possible. And the idea is, so as long as we’re a DNA-based life form, it’s likely we’ll be able to read DNA.
LHL: How, and why, do we contain and archive culture more broadly?
GC: I think it’s very important to keep archival track of history, to show how life has been lived. That may not be the top priority, but it’s one of the reasons for de-extinction, one of the reasons for frozen zoos. It’s better if we can keep archives as intact ecosystems, because we don’t know enough about ecosystems to recreate them from frozen storage and we may not have the will to do so. But to the extent that we are able to keep historical versions and living versions of everything—cultures, languages—we really have to preserve our technological progress, refuges, and archives.
LHL: Doing this kind of work is utopian. Do you see yourself as an optimist?
GC: There’s an optimistic side and a pessimistic side. The idea of having to store something in a form that would persist for a million years presupposes that we’re going to lose our current technology or maybe even our civilization and then have to recover it. So that’s the negative scenario. The same thing goes for extraterrestrial surgery: It might be premised with the fact that we need to get off the planet because we’re sitting ducks for asteroids and super volcanoes if we keep all of our eggs in this one planetary basket. Nevertheless, on the positive side, this work has opened opportunities because if we leave the planet, we might leave with a small enough number of people, and be well enough funded, that it would be feasible to eliminate all pathogenic microorganisms or possibly all microorganisms. It might also be necessary and possible to reduce radiation and gravitational sensitivity, and maybe even pain sensitivity, at least for a short period of time. You can turn pain on and off in a way that doesn’t make you dopey, as typical anesthesia and opiates do, because there’s a known genetic mechanism whereby people are born insensitive to pain. It’s a risk factor if you’re always insensitive to pain, but when it comes to a surgery, you could in principle do something without anesthesia, without antibiotics, without sterilization, and you could just walk into the appointment in your street clothes and be cut open, or even cut yourself open. These are all interesting possibilities you start thinking about when you consider the necessity of us getting off the planet. You start wondering about the opportunities for changing ourselves and meeting new needs in the future.
LHL: Do you think it will be essential to move to an unpolluted, sustainable planet?
GC: I think the motivation for getting off the planet is not necessarily to avoid pollution. I mean pollution is a characteristic of life, not just of human life. If you look far enough back, the atmosphere once had essentially zero oxygen. Photosynthetic organisms polluted the atmosphere till it was 21 percent oxygen, which is toxic to many, many life forms. That was big time pollution in the dawn of life. Humans will almost certainly pollute subsequent planets because our population grows. If our population grows, then at a minimum, even if we don’t pollute the planet with hydrocarbons and toxic atmosphere, and so forth, we’re polluting it with human beings. It has origins in technology; the green revolution allowed us to double our previous population limits. That’s not why I think we should leave the planet. The reason we should leave the planet is that the planet will be destroyed by natural problems eliminating all the work that we’ve put into our intelligence and civilization. So we need to have colonies all over the place. The further away the better.
LHL: What are some of the other dangers for this planet?
GC: We’ve already had several volcanoes, as well as asteroids that have hit the planet, destroying many species by obscuring all light from coming to Earth. If you cut off photosynthesis, you cut off most of the resources of food. It would, at a minimum, endanger civilization. If the impact is big enough it could cause biological extermination.
LHL: So you anticipate a possible unknown entity that could cause a massive extermination or urgent need to migrate away from Earth?
GC: Unknown—that’s the point. It could be thousands of years from now, or it could be tomorrow. We just had a fairly close encounter with an unexpected asteroid. It was small and far away, but went undetected until alarmingly late. When it comes to how fast we could get off the planet, I think we’ve got priorities. If we focus on diseases affecting developing nations, and on poverty, and raising up everybody’s standard of living, then we’ll have more wealth to spend on this rather than on competing as we do now. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we get off the planet within the next century and form viable, sustainable colonies where people don’t expect to come back. It could be sooner.
LHL: Do you think human nature causes many of the devastations, particularly climate disasters and pollution, that we are experiencing now?
GC: Human nature has changed. For the most part not genetically. I don’t draw a sharp line between genetic and non-genetic inheritance. We inherit things like our ability to travel on jets, and into space, to use computers, and so forth. That’s as surely inherited as eye color. In fact, in some cases, probably a little better inherited. Inheritance is more penetrant. We will continue to change; the fastest and most impactful evolution today is cultural evolution. Culture now includes technology, and technology now includes genetics. Our genetics might catch up to evolve at the speed of cultural change and impact because they are now part of culture. For the first time in history, if we have a good idea, it can spread through the Internet in a day. If it involves manufacturing, it spreads via the Internet and other resources in a year. DNA can’t spread that fast through procreation; every cycle of genetic innovation takes twenty years.
LHL: What do you see as our options?
GC: It’s important to accompany each new technology with a lot of education and dialogue. It’s not a one-way street. Each development requires listening as well as communicating, letting people know that this technology is available. There can be radical reductions in price. We’ve seen that already with cell phones, computers, Internet searches, and DNA reading and writing. All of these things come down to the point where they’re almost free, often because they’re subsidized by advertisements or similar products.
LHL: How are these choices made? Who controls them?
GC: Decisions are made in the usual collection of less than ideal, higgledy-piggledy decision making processes involving politics and economics. Market forces have the biggest influence. If some clever entrepreneur can think of a reason why seven billion people should have access to cell phones, there will be seven billion cell phones. The same rule applies with DNA; if they can find a reason why seven billion people could benefit, whether or not they can afford it, somebody in the system will figure out how to get it to them. I think that’s how the decisions are made de facto; whether or not the particular locality or nation or United Nations makes a decision is probably less predictable than people speaking their economic needs and demands.
LHL: Optimists look at risks and find solutions to potential dangers, right?
GC: Well, I worry about everything, but I wouldn’t classify myself as an optimist particularly. I mean if I were a complete optimist, there’d be no reason for me to do technology; I’d think we’re all set, you know! If there were no problem with having nine billion people on the planet, no problem with existing and emerging diseases in civilization, we wouldn’t need to do anything. It’s because I’m a pessimist on all of those things that I think doing nothing is not a great option.
LHL: Exactly what an optimist would say.
GC: Not only do I worry about everything; I try to encourage everybody else to worry too. It’s one way of engaging the public, and although it may not be a particularly good way, it’s important that they know about the dangers ahead. As technologists, we have a better view. Some scientists don’t consider it necessary to convey that view. But I do. I think it is important to communicate as soon as possible; it’s much better to over-anticipate than to under-anticipate problems. So, for example, it was predicted that it would take six decades before we could read the human genome, and instead it took six years. I think that there may be many other things like that that threaten us. I worry about enabling technologies that allow the average citizen or very small numbers of citizens to have powers that only nations, or maybe nobody would have had in the past. It used to be that one person couldn’t do that much damage, but now with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, one person can have an impact. In particular, this applies to biological weapons, because they can be spread from a single cell, or a single virus, and one person can invent something of global significance. I think that, again, to do nothing is not an option. You have to be proactive. You have to come up with technologies that are good at surveillance, that are good at removing some of the psychological and social motivation for abusing existing technologies.
LHL: And how do you see that manifesting?
GC: Certainly diagnostics is a kind of surveillance, but the surveillance I’m talking about in the pessimistic view of the future is surveillance on the environment for emerging diseases. We want to do surveillance on all researchers, official or unofficial, as to what they’re doing, whether or not they want us to know what they’re doing. No one has the right to do whatever they want with synthetic biology. They all should be under surveillance. There are many positive aspects of surveillance too. I think we’re going to get better and better at having distributed surveillance technologies throughout our bodies that will anticipate and help us to practice preventative medicine.
LHL: I totally agree with this; with having internal biological surveillance systems to read information that is not normally seen. Is this done through cells or sensors?
GC: In particular, sensors that read out new infectious agents can help us stop epidemics at patient zero. We don’t have to wait until there are a million contagious people flying around in airplanes. We can stop an infection spreading as soon as we see it.
LHL: That would be a remarkable advancement.
GC: We are getting a little bit better at diagnostics. I think it’s one of those paradoxical things where we have the technology to do far better with diagnostics than we currently do; but in standard medical practices, if you have a respiratory infection, you are treated but typically not diagnosed. And that has to do with the perceived realities of the relative costs of diagnostics and treatments.
LHL: How would you envision this?
GC: Some of the current sensors can take a little saliva, run it through a DNA sequencer and produce a readout of all the viruses and bacteria in your mouth, or any other part of your body, or in the air. That tends to be slow, but we’re getting faster. You could one day actually sense this readout as you walk into a room: you can see whether you’re allergic to the space, whether it contains pathogens or not, whether you’ve been vaccinated against those pathogens. This could happen in real time, as part of your cell phone network. We currently only have the technology to do some of that slowly, but it’s improving rapidly and exponentially.
LHL: Is there a way to be able to tell when and where something is created that could be a threat to other life forms?
GC: There is fairly good international agreement on diagnostics, and especially on therapeutics, because they can really mess you up if they haven’t gone through proper double blind, placebo controlled, randomized clinical trials. This is the gold standard of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and equivalents internationally; the EMA (European Medicines Agency) in Europe, the CFDA in China, and so forth. They don’t let you try out a new drug without going through the correct protocol, ideally using animal testing first. You can’t even use new drugs on an individual basis, because they don’t want people hurting themselves.
LHL: And what about being able to track life formed through CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) editing? To understand on a global scale what exactly is being created and track these new living systems?
GC: Well, CRISPR is not unique in any sense. It’s not particularly more accessible than previous therapeutics. You know you can go out and get OxyContin without a prescription. I mean it’s illegal, but the law is hard to enforce… It’s a numbers game; you’re trying to keep the public health risk to a minimum. If you’re not producing addictive or harmful drugs, then the risk is lower. There will still be regulations, and really I think the key is coming up with legal drugs that are just as desirable as the illegal ones. Among the goals of the FDA and other agencies worldwide is to come up with safer and more effective drugs, until there’s no motivation to use them in any other than the proper way.
LHL: What kind of restrictions do you envision being put into place? How would they function?
GC: There are restrictions on almost everything. If you alter an animal in the wild, you’re actually restricted by three agencies in the United States; the FDA, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and the US Department of Agriculture. In some cases, they’re looking out for the welfare of the engineered organism, which is a little odd when you’re talking about mosquitos. You don’t really care that much about the welfare of mosquitos. You want to make sure that the ecosystem doesn’t depend on them in some way.
LHL: How do any other regulations prevent the creation of new life forms?
GC: It’s regulated internationally. In fact, many of the proposals to engineer wild species with, say, gene drives, CRISPR gene drives, involve crossing international borders. And when you know in advance they’re going to do that, then you need to get international harmony on that topic beforehand. If you override that step, there will probably be agencies that will reverse what you did along the line, who’ll hunt you down—there are consequences. You can certainly create new life forms; what you can’t do is deploy them. As soon as you deploy them, they’re detectable. And that’s why I think surveillance should be one of our top priorities. The earlier we detect new life forms, the earlier we can start reversing them.
LHL: Exactly how does this happen?
GC: You have a sensor network, which can include animal, plant sensors, mechanical, or electrical sensors. If they’re cheap enough, they can be distributed worldwide and they can have real time monitoring and you should be able to detect the very first instances of something that’s unusual. You have to know what you’re looking for to some extent. But even any change in the natural frequencies of things could tip you off that something is happening.
LHL: Well that’s a relief. A lot of people I’ve talked to seem to not know about these systems of detection.
GC: They are very primitive, but yes—the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a network of stations and physicians, and samples, if they have an unusual patient. But it could be so much more cost effective and medically efficient if everybody had their own personal sensor, or maybe several personal sensors, just like the average United States citizen has multiple electronic devices.
LHL: I see. And what is the oversight of these sensor networks?
GC: It’s not absolutely uniform and absolutely enforced, but they promote a general agreement as to what the goals are. And furthermore, when you’re talking about business, it is international. When Google decided it wanted to do Street View internationally, it had to get local permission to run its automated cameras up and down the streets of every country. Some allowed it, and some didn’t. There was a whole patchwork of decisions. But for the most part, it’s an international deliverable, and it’s out there now: you can get Street View and Google Maps for almost every place in the world.
LHL: All driven into being by optimists like you.
GC: I would say it takes fairly minimal optimism to not be paralyzed by pessimism. And I would say that I’ve achieved that level. It’s not that there are no solutions. There are just a lot of problems. In fact, the creative process in this case is being stimulated by problem solving… I would say I’m even pessimistic about developing new technologies because we will often launch five different technologies in a particular direction knowing that four of them will fail. If we were optimistic, we’d just say, “Oh, this is going to work, right.” Super optimistic would be “I don’t need to do anything, just leave it the way it is, let it evolve.” The middle position that I take is: “Yeah, something is going to work, but not everything. So I have to try a lot of different things.”
LHL: When did you become interested in biological and computer interventions?
GC: I’ve been interested in the intersection of biology and computers since I was ten years old. I worked first with crystallography of genetic material. So, it wasn’t quite genetics, but it soon became obvious that the best use of skills and computer science and biology was going to be genetics. And that’s both reading and writing DNA, and essentially reading and writing everything biological, from organs to ecosystems, to precision medicine.
LHL: I think of this as the art form of our time.
GC: Right. In fact, one of my post-docs describes his field as sculpting evolutions.
LHL: I totally agree.
GC: It’s a four-dimensional sculpture that includes every part of our ecosystem.
LHL: And time.
GC: Right. That’s the fourth dimension, time.
Over the last five decades, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941, Cleveland, based in San Francisco and New York, US) has been internationally acclaimed for her art and films. Cited as one of the most influential media artists, Hershman Leeson is widely recognized for her innovative work investigating issues that are now recognized as key to the workings of society: the relationship between humans and technology, identity, surveillance, and the use of media as a tool of empowerment against censorship and political repression. Major solo presentations of her work include “Manual Override”, The Shed, New York, 2019; “VertiGhost”, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, 2017; “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)”, Modern Art Oxford, 2015; “Civic Radar. Lynn Hershman Leeson - The Retrospective”, ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2014.