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Living Memorials: Have your genes spliced into a tree.


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DNA Dose Seeds Living Tombstones

By David Cohn

02:00 AM Nov. 02, 2005 PT

In a mystical use of genetic modification, a U.K. art group based in Japan has found a way to ensure that a person's DNA lives on long after their demise.

Biopresence, founded by Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara, intends to infuse the DNA of recently deceased loved ones into trees, turning the plants into living memorials.

"Basically, it can also be seen as a complex pattern of silent mutations," said Tremmel.

The trees will have no visual or significant genetic changes, because all the human genes will be stored inside the tree using Joe Davis' DNA Manifold method, which only affects the genotype of an organism.

In a nutshell, Biopresence will piggyback the human DNA underneath redundant triplets of amino acids that already exist in the tree. These redundant triplets are not actually expressed in the tree, making them available to store excess information.

"By taking advantage of this variability, any arbitrary data can be written 'underneath' a gene without altering its natural function," said Davis, who created the method Biopresence uses.

Biopresence hopes that the memorial trees will provide a setting that is more comfortable than a crowded gray cemetery where people can remember those who have passed on.

The first attempt will be with a Japanese cherry blossom tree, which is in the same genome as apple trees. The artists estimate the cost of the procedure to be about $35,000, perhaps a small price to pay for genetic immortality considering that traditional funerals run between $6,000 and $7,000.

"It sounds like a nice gesture," said Charice Hill, a funeral director for the House of Hills Funeral Homes in New York. "People should do what they are most comfortable doing, but often that's determined by economic factors."

Although expensive, the process to create a living tombstone is actually fairly simple. After taking a skin sample from the cadaver, DNA is stored in a single tree cell as a silent mutation. That single cell is then nurtured until it is large enough to plant. Every cell of the resulting tree should contain the genetic information of the person whose DNA was infused into that original cell.

While the genetic information of a deceased loved one is stored within the tree, some scientists think it is questionable if the tree can act as a biological time capsule.

A complex series of genetic manipulations could be used to retrieve the stored data, but David Hyman of the Genetics Center says actually getting the information is "akin to burying a Betamax tape with the deceased and expecting someone to find a way to play the tape in 2050."

Other experts call the entire project into question.

"When Biopresence says they are creating 'living memorials,' they are at best speaking metaphorically. It is not much different than what you'd get from burying a body in a cemetery and planting a tree on the gravesite," said Nancy Tuana, director of the Rock Ethics Institute.

Biopresence, however, thinks its project can have a significant effect on how people mourn the loss of a loved one. And scientists like Steven Beckendorf, a genetics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, can see the potential.

"It is a sort of metaphorical representation (of a deceased loved one), but that's OK," said Beckendorf. "I doubt anyone paying for the service will expect a homunculus to reside within the tree."

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