The King may be dead, but his memory lives on in the form of a genetically engineered mouse created by Royal College of Art graduate student, Koby Barhad. The "genetically cloned model" of the late rock legend is part of an art project called, All That I Am — an attempt to explore a number of philosophical and ethical issues.
Incredibly, Barhad used three online services to do his artwork. He acquired Elvis Presley's hair samples off of eBay (who knew?) and sent the samples to a gene sequencing lab where technicians were able to identify various behavioral traits — including such factors as sociability, athletic performance, obesity, and addiction. By using this information, Barhad then commissioned the production of transgenic mouse clones which had these parallel traits.
But there's more to Barhad's experiment. By placing the mouse in specialized environments, he attempted to simulate the various biographical circumstances of Elvis's life.
So, for example, in order to replicate the conditions of his childhood, Bargad created a box for the Elvis-mouse that contained a companion mother (to mimic "his mother's influence and special place she had in his life") and a dark, cold area (to represent the poverty Elvis felt when growing up in Tupelo).
Barhad also worked to "condition" talent into the mouse with a series of food reward triggers. And to mimic the tragic conclusion of his life, Barhad placed a distorted mirror inside the cage (representing Elvis's vanity and exaggerated self-image), and a treadmill that led to a sudden drop-off (symbolizing his death).
Wired.co.uk's Ian Steadman recently interviewed Barhad about his project:
Why Elvis? Why mice?
I started the project with procuring hairs of Elvis, Princes Diana and JFK — all are cultural heroes that died before their time. That way they were made a myth, glorified to the point where they became a utopian model. From these three, Elvis is the ultimate symbol of the amount of (sometime ridiculous) effort we put, as a society, in keeping those models alive.
As for the mouse — in the last two centuries the mouse has been used as a human model in science. As a scientific symbol for man. Apparently we have an extraordinary number of identical genes that make it perfect for testing ourselves. From psychology to physiology it was always tested on mice first.
What was the inspiration for combining the elements of this experiment — the mouse testing equipment, the Elvis hair and online genetic services?
I've always been fascinated with humanity's eternal need to quantify and define life. Be it biology or physics, philosophy or biography, psychology or fiction — from Frankenstein to the "god particle". In my research I came across a private lab service that offers "mice" that are "genetically modified for your needs". From that point I was just wondering whose behavioural mice model I would like to design. That, of course, led me to eBay, the DNA sequencing labs and to historical and contemporary behaviouristic science.
Would you argue that you have the right to use an individual's DNA for cloning (of a sort) just because you've got one of his hairs?
I won't argue that, as I'm not an expert in law and ethics. Instead, I'm raising those questions so that we, as the general public, would get a better understanding of the issues that we'll soon have to deal with.
Be sure to check out Steadman's entire interview.
Top image via Wired.co.uk. Inset image via Koby Barhad