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A scheme to insert DNA from a dead person into an apple tree to create a living memorial of that individual's "biological essence" has run into problems, despite being promised UK government funding.
The GM apple tree, proposed by art graduates Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara of the Royal College of Art in London, has been dubbed a "transgenic tombstone" by the British press.
The artists' symbolic goal is that every cell in the tree will have a genetic echo of a dead loved-one allowing their heritage to be handed on forever in the tree's fruit.
The UK National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) earmarked £35,000 (nearly AUD$90,000), to help the duo's company, Biopresence, get off the ground.
Their goal is to market individually engineered trees at £20,000 pounds (just over AUD$50,000) each.
But according to this week’s New Scientist, Tremmel and Fukuhara have encountered some stumbling blocks.
Their original plan was to insert a uniquely individual sequence of "junk" human DNA – that which does not code for protein - into the tree's genome. But, ethical and safety objections made them steer away from this plan.
They have decided instead to write a "silent" piece of human genetic code which could be embedded in an apple gene without changing the gene’s length or the protein it spells out. This is possible because there is often more than one codon in a gene that codes for the same amino acid. A codon is a specific collection of three of the four bases (G, T,C and A) that make up the genetic code.
The problem is that the technique they plan to use is involves eight coding steps and is extraordinarily complex and time-consuming – not to mention, expensive. The method is borrowed from "bio-artist" Joe Davis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who himself claims to have coded a fragment of Greek text by Heraclitus into a gene of the fruitfly.
The other problem is even more daunting: British regulators. NESTA has made it’s funding dependent on approval from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and English Nature.
They have to be satisfied it won’t threaten the environment and ACRE has said that it will have to consider each individual tree separately, requiring Biopresence to produce exhaustive test results for every order it receives.
"If you are in search of a permanent genetic memorial to grandma, look closer to home," advises New Scientist. "Her truly meaningful genetic legacy lies in you, your children and your grandchildren."
The coding process would be entirely man made and has some people questioning the extent to which the altered apple sequence would represent human DNA.
"How you realte this to a specific human I’m not sure," said Professor Chris Lever, head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford who condemend the project as a waste of public funds.
with ABC Science Online