Primal Numbers – Van Gogh’s Ear

In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh lost his left ear. Popular legend has it that he sliced the ear off himself. Other sources claim the ear was lost in a fight with fellow artist and friend Paul Gauguin. Either way, science has now created a copy of Van Gogh’s ear, grown using DNA from his great-great-grandnephew. The technology holds great promise for medicine, but it also raises a big concern: what if someone wants to regrow your parts after you die?

The question would have seemed like science fiction to a 17th century mind. It’s hard to imagine Van Gogh pondering the possibility, never mind including a clause about it in his will. That wasn’t a problem though, because his modern relatives gave the permission, and genetic material, for artist Diemut Strebe to recreate the famous artist’s ear. As CTV News reports, “the cells were shaped to resemble the ear” by using a 3D printer.

The organ is on display in a German museum, and is “being kept alive inside a case containing a nourishing liquid.” Visitors can even speak into it (or perhaps sing a bit of Don McLean’s classic “Vincent”).

The technology behind 3D printing is fascinating, the kind of thing we could only imagine a mere 50 years ago. It’s already offering new hope to millions of people around the world, especially amputees, as this Atlantic article notes.

But there’s a huge ethical grey area between creating a prosthetic for a living patient, and recreating the body parts of your dearly departed Uncle Alaric, who might not be keen on having his hands or eyes regrown in a lab.

It’s true that science isn’t quite there yet but developments are moving quickly. And when we do reach the point where we can grow Uncle Alaric’s ears as easily as we can sprout a bean plant, there’s another issue: you might not even own the rights to his DNA?or your own.

Incredible as it seems, governments have been issuing patents on DNA to corporations and labs for over 20 years. As this Washington Post article explains, so many different genes have now been patented that “forty-one percent of the genes in your genome are not legally yours.”

In practical terms, this means that if your doctor wanted to run a diagnostic test on one of your genes that a company has patented, his office might have to pay thousands of dollars for the right to run that test.

It would take an entire book to delve into the intricate science and legalities behind gene patents. But the fact remains that we’re not merely on the threshold of such possibilities. We’re already well into the game and figuring out the rules as we go. And whether you or your relatives own all the bits of your DNA or not, we need to start thinking about what could be regrown from that DNA when we’re gone, and whether we’d choose to allow it.

Answering such big questions will take a lot of time and public discussion?and perhaps a little soul searching as we ponder the unknown on a starry night.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.