American Scientist (2014)


That Was Then. This is Now: A Museum of PostNatural History
By Richard W. Pell and Lauren B. Allen

The Center for PostNatural History is a museum dedicated to documenting and exhibiting the full range of living organisms that have been intentionally and heritably altered through processes such as domestication, selective breeding, genetic engineering and synthetic biology. While this may on the surface appear to be an arbitrary or even anachronistic category, a closer look at this slice of life reveals as much about humans as it does about the life forms in question. Unlike the organisms that typically populate Natural History collections, PostNatural organisms play an additional role as artifacts of the culture that produces them. They are living embodiments of human desires and fears, heritably accumulated over time. PostNatural History takes place in the anthropocene, an era defined by the impact of humans as significant and recognizably distinct from other geologic influences. While there is disagreement as to which historical event signals the start of the anthropocene, we can trace the beginning of PostNatural History to the first species domesticated by humans: the ancestor of the modern dog (Canis lupus familiaris). While the exact nature and timing of the initial humandog connection is the subject of some discussion, the idea that humans and dogs began a mutually dependent relationship based around hunting at some point prior to the start of the Holocene is generally agreed upon. Agriculture, the practice of humans controlling the reproductive lives of plants, and thus domesticating them, began a few thousand years later. More often than not, specimens of domesticated species are relegated to the dusty longterm storage rooms of the museum basement. They are treated as provincial relics of a less scientifically rigorous era. Commonly regarded as too boring to be displayed for the public, with few exceptions, these PostNatural specimens are also considered too insignificant to be studied seriously by scientists. Their existence in captivity renders them incapable of providing insight into the complexities of ecology, habitat, or climate. The situation is even worse for laboratory animals. By virtue of human involvement, their evolutionary history has been corrupted. In other words, they are by their nature bad biological data. When domesticated plants and animals do make appearances in natural history collections, they are generally presented to show how the relatively rapid changes brought about by artificial selection can help to explain processes of natural selection. However, the cultural values and circumstances that propel the artificial selection are rarely a part of the picture. Even Darwin recognized the cultural significance of domestication in the opening chapter of On the Origin of Species, “One of the most remarkable features in our domesticated [species] is that we see in them adaptation, not indeed to the animal’s or plant’s own good, but to man’s use or fancy”.1 1 Darwin, Charles. (2008) On the Origin of Species. Illustrated edition, David Quammen, Ed. New York: Sterling. p. 33. At the same time that 20th century natural history museums generally stopped cataloging the “new breeds”, the merging of science, industry and global trade were rapidly increasing their number. An emerging synthesis between the newly understood Mendelian laws of heredity, genetics research, “fancier” breeders, and industrialized production set the stage for an explosion of genetic and morphological diversity both on the farm and in the lab. These institutions for the most part lack the capacity, resources, and/or interest to fully document and archive their creations the way natural history museums have documented the diversity of our natural world. The Center for PostNatural History emerged from a desire to rectify this missing archive. It began in 2006 by collecting specimens of genetically modified organisms that were often discussed in the media, but rarely seen in “person”. Among the first specimens to be collected was a set of transgenic mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) from the lab of Dr. Anthony James at the University of California Irvine [Image 1]. The mosquitoes were modified in an attempt to render their digestive tract a less welcoming habitat for the virus that causes dengue fever. While federal law prohibits the release of living genetically modified organisms into the wild, the organisms cease to be the subject of regulation once they are dead. In this way, the traditional natural history methods of specimen preservation gain a new function, allowing the public to see organisms that would otherwise remain hidden from view because of regulations. Since those first specimens were accessioned by the Center for PostNatural History, the museum’s collection has grown to include hundreds of PostNatural organisms from all over the world, each possessing its own evolutionary and cultural origin story. The largest specimen collected to date is a socalled BioSteel™ goat (Capra aegagrus hircus) named Freckles [Image 2]. Freckles was born the property of a company in Canada called Nexia, which engineered a line of transgenic goats to produce spider silk proteins in their milk. The proteins can be harvested and “spun” into extraordinarily strong fibers. Nexia eventually closed its doors and several years later the remaining goats were relocated to the research lab of Dr. Randy Lewis at the University of Utah, Logan. Dr. Lewis has been a pioneer in synthetic spider silk production since the early 1990’s and played a role in the initial creation of Freckles. She served on the University’s research farm until her death, when Dr. Lewis donated her body to the Center for PostNatural History. She is the only taxidermied BioSteel™ goat on public display in the world. Another highlight of the Center’s collection is a preserved plate of an early synthetic biology experiment conducted by the Ellington lab at the University of Texas, Austin, in which Escherichia coli bacteria were genetically engineered to produce a pigment in response to light [Image 3]. The resulting plate of bacteria displays the famous output of any first computer programming attempt: “HELLO WORLD”. Other specimens include collections of standard ‘model’ organisms such as laboratory mice (Mus musculus domesticus) [Image 4] donated by the Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, ME) and fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) [Image 5] from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY), an assortment of purebred dog (Canis lupus familiaris) skulls [Image 6], taxidermied chicken (Gallus gallus domestica) and pigeon (Columba livia domestica) breeds, and a growing archive of photographs, ephemera, and original publications relating to PostNatural History. The Center for PostNatural History’s collection and permanent exhibit space are located on a commercial street in Pittsburgh, PA, where a mixture of curious travelers, members of the public, students, and scientists visit on a weekly basis. The Center also produces traveling exhibitions that include specimens from the collection of regional or thematic interest, such as PostNatural Organisms of the European Union, an exhibit which has been temporarily displayed in the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, and will be on exhibit in 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Plans to expand the Center for PostNatural History’s permanent exhibit and collections storage space are already underway. As a freetothepublic institution, the Center for PostNatural History is dependent on the generous donations of specimens and other artifacts by researchers, breeders, and institutions involved in the creation and preservation of PostNatural organisms. Persons interested in sharing their work with the public through the Center for PostNatural History may contact us directly at contact@postnatural.org Image 1. Transgenic Mosquito (Aedes aegypti). James Lab, University of California, Irvine. 2009. Image 2. The Center for PostNatural History Front Gallery featuring Freckles (Capra aegagrus hircus). 2013. Image 3. “Hello World” (Escherichia coli). Ellington Lab University of Texas, Austin. 2004. Image 4. C57BL/6J (Mus musculus domesticus). JAX Laboratories. Bar Harbor, ME. 2011. Image 5. Transgenic Fruit Flies (Drosophila melanogaster). Swank Lab Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. 2011. Image 6. Skull of a purebred pug (Canis lupus familiaris). 2013.