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Small museum in Garfield takes a rare look at lifeforms altered by humans

Friday, April 26, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
 

You've probably been to a natural history museum (Carnegie or otherwise). But what do museums do when natural history starts to get less and less, well, “natural”?

Chicken eggs incubating influenza viruses to create flu vaccines. Glowing fish, made from zebrafish with genes from bioluminescent jellyfish and coral. Goats bred to grow super-strong spider silk in their milk. Sea monkeys.

In a small storefront on Penn Avenue in Garfield, Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Pell's answer was to create the Center for Post-Natural History, the only museum in the world dedicated to “lifeforms that have been intentionally altered by humans.”

This sounds like something very specific. Genetically modified crops are already a hot-button issue, and genetically modified animals (and humans) are the stuff of science-fiction nightmares.

Actually, it's much broader than that. Civilization exists because humans were able to successfully domesticate certain plants and animals over long periods of time. In turn, these plants and animals tend to alter the way we live.

Pell, an art professor, found his interest piqued in a peculiar way. He had always been interested in technology and learned to program robots. At a high-school reunion, he met an old friend and told him about his studies.

“He said, ‘I program robots, too, and mine are alive with DNA,' ” Pell says.

That got Pell's attention.

“I just dove in,” he says. “He invited me to conferences. I read big biology textbooks for fun, for a few years. I didn't feel like an outsider (to the subject), because it was all so new.”

“I kept imagining a place like (the Center for Post-Natural History). I always anticipated someone doing this, but no one did.”

After entering the bright, tech-office-like entryway, visitors pass through a curtain into a dimly lit room. As your eyes adjust, ambient music cuts off sound from the outside world. The presentation is traditional, in the classic, early 20th-century natural-history museum sense — where one is invited to look at something unusual whose significance is not always immediately apparent, and perhaps pick up a phone and hear its story, narrated in warmly authoritative, stentorian tones.

Pell considers every organism that has been intentionally changed in some way by humans — as opposed to those who remain in an untouched “natural” state — to be within the scope of the center. Our crops, livestock, even pets have been domesticated and bred for very specific reasons: taste, size, hardiness, cuteness, resistance to blight, and so on. Our pet pit bulls and golden retrievers alike were domesticated from wild wolf ancestors by generations of people picking and pairing off animals with the characteristics they wanted.

There are a lot of strange and fascinating exhibits at the center, but one that tends to stick out is the case of sea monkeys.

Sea monkeys were created from brine shrimp by inventor and motorcycle racer Harold Von Braunhut in 1957. He sold millions, through shrewd advertising in comic books.

“He started working with a researcher, breeding them to have a long-dormant cycle in the egg stage,” Pell says. “It was almost declared a different species.”

One of Von Braunhut's other inventions was the similarly marketed “X-Ray Specs.”

Pell expects to get perhaps his most spectacular exhibit in the next six months — a BioSteel goat (stuffed, of course). At the moment, there's a small diorama indicating the goats' peculiar habitat, a former air force base and nuclear weapons storage site.

These peculiar goats start with the Nexia Corp. of Canada, which designed the goats to produce spider silk in bulk. Spider silk is exceptionally strong, and can be used for bulletproof vests and fishing line. The only problem is that spiders don't like to cooperate, which is why you don't see a lot of working spider farms. Nexia was able to produce 40 goats who could produce silk. Half were bought by the U.S. Department of Defense. Nexia has since been liquidated and bought by an oil-and-gas company.

The rest of the goats were purchased by a farmer in Utah. Recently, the farmer emailed Pell, asking if he was interested in one.

“We've made arrangements with a taxidermist here,” Pell says. “Where we're going to put a goat, I don't know.”

In Europe, there's a lot of organized political resistance to genetically modified organisms, and it's a growing concern for many in the United States. The litigious, proprietary stances of certain giant agricultural corporations toward the organisms they've developed also is starting to draw greater scrutiny.

Pell acknowledges the concerns about genetically modified organisms, but says the center isn't allied to any specific agenda. It's just a place to chronicle and study the many little-known changes humans make to other organisms and tell the often-fascinating stories behind them.

“We offer an incomplete puzzle,” Pell says. “We hope others will do research on their own. It's about cultivating a sense of wonder.”

The case of the American chestnut tree is one that typically causes some cognitive dissonance among “anti-genetically modified organisms” food activists and partisans. This used to be one of the most common trees in America, but blight has reduced it to a shrub on the forest floor. A State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry team has added a blight-resistant gene from wheat. This is the first “transgenic” organism designed to thrive in the wild (as opposed to domestication), Pell claims.

MaryAnn Steiner, director of research on learning at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is one of many in the local museum and scientific communities who has visited the center. She applauds its open-ended approach.

“One day, when I was visiting with my brother from Chicago, I heard a young couple approach the front desk. They asked the woman who was working there, ‘What position does this museum take on genetic modification? We can't tell from the exhibit if they are for or against it,' ” Steiner says.

“In a time when talking about controversial science is often polarized, (Center for Post-Natural History's) exhibits provide specific examples, historical and current day, to consider. These examples do not lead to an easy yes or no question but rather one that requires thought and judgement on broader principles of ethics, environmental impact, and benefit,” she says.

Admission to the center is free, and there are no plans to immediately change that, although donations are accepted. Pell would like to have an actual paid staff someday other than himself, which could expand the center's hours. At the moment, its regular hours are from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays and from 5 to 8 p.m. the first Fridays of every month.

Some small grants and donations have kept it afloat so far.

Another exhibit coming soon features items from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault produced by a group of American and Norwegian researchers who spent several weeks visiting the world's largest repository of domesticated food-crop seeds.

There's also a traveling exhibit touring Europe, which is on display at a natural history museum in Berlin.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

 

 
 


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