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Initial Attempts at Embryonic Transplant Surgery


This is a document of my first attempt at embryonic transplant surgery. Unfortunately, this is a tribute to the process of trial and error, not a successful transplant operation. If you decide to explore this craft at home, remember to be very patient. It is a difficult and tedious process that demands dexterity and concentration. It also helps to have a mild to potent morbid streak and the ability to deal with a high degree of failure.



10 Zebrafish Embryos, 19 Hours After Insemination


1 Dissection Microscope 40X
A Variety of MicroSurgical Tools

Initially, my plan was to cut the head off of one growing zebrafish embryo and transplant (paste) that head onto another ‘whole’ zebrafish embryo. Done correctly, this might develop into a two-headed, fleshy and fashionable, ‘Mosaic Brut’ designer zebrafish.


The zebrafish eggs were inseminated at 5:00 on 5/1/01 (MayDay) for the purposes of teaching undergraduate biology students the effects of retinoic acid on embryological development. The Project Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Biology department donated ten of the inseminated fish eggs for artistic purposes. I then waited nineteen hours until 23:59 on 5/1/01. This precise timing coincides with a stage in zebrafish development where the embryo’s individual cells are differentiated enough to be committed to body plan. On the other hand, the nineteenth hour of zebrafish development is too early for a well-developed immune system to have formed. Therefore, a graft of this sort might not be rejected.

Microsurgery is surgical procedure done while looking through a microscope. A standard dissection microscope (40X) should be used. The first incision is the breaching of the egg shell and removing the yolk/embryo complex in one piece. The next step is the decapitation of some of these breached embryos. The final step is the ‘sticking’ of a disembodied pre-fish head onto the breached yet ‘whole’ embryo. There is a tendency of living things to stick to each other so a light pressure should be all that is needed for attachment.


Even at the nineteenth hour stage, zebrafish embryos have some mobility and reactivity to microsurgical tools (thin metal hooked tweezers, melted glass stabbers, tiny razors, etc.) After removing the shell, it may help to view them on an agar plate instead of in water, as the agar is more viscous and makes it harder for the developing fish to escape your field of vision while practicing microsurgery.


As I have said, micromanipulation takes a steady hand and some skillful maneuvering. The little zebrafish eggs (~ 1mm in diameter) are hard to tweeze open without destroying the life inside. Yet they are resilient as well. I lost 4 out of 10 embryos just being an inelegant brute at this preliminary stage. I either popped the yolks or just lost the embryo in an exhaustive squirt of amniotic fluid.


Initial Attempts at Embryonic Fish Head Transplant Surgery
Video Microscopy, Dissection Microscope 40X
MIT 2001

The decapitation of one embryo was neatly achieved after a few messier attempts. The disembodied yet still living head was then gently applied to a full embryo but did not stick. After a few tries I decided it was either a lack of luck or skill on my part (perhaps the wrong buffer.) I had learned quite a lot for one night. I continue to study the protocols and tutor myself in the traditions and techniques of Developmental Embryology.


It should be mentioned that the science of Embryology has been a practice for hundreds of years. The types of explantation/induction experiments I have attempted for this exhibition are often referred to as classical experimental embryology. The techniques date back to the laboratory of Hans Spemann in the 1920’s. It was this type of cut and paste grafting that led to the discovery of the Spemann Organizer for which Hans won the (what year) Nobel prize.

By learning standard microsurgical skills as an art productive process, I am attempting to focus on the liminal relationships that are formed at the border between the creation and the destruction of living beings. This is an attempt at waking the sleeping dreams of personal beauty. Therefore, I am not shielded by the rhetoric of moral sanctity implicit in the public face of scientific rationalization. I also believe participatory observation is a prerequisite to the comprehension and recontextualisation of any practice. But this is self expression, first and foremost.

While I plead non-utility, I think it is important to underscore, much more than organized form and hard facts can be learned by observing the processes of growth and differentiation. There are invisible worlds all around us. Scientists may want to reveal the veiled abscesses in ways that are repeatable, empirical and reductive. We artists may be looking for equally important isolated instances of amazingness, anomalous and singular, personal and subjective. Together, Artists and Scientists are demented explorers who return from forays into the unknown with a record or a reflection of their perceptions. We are ‘peeping toms’ in quandary’s boudoir. In fact, the fear and attraction of voyeuristic dementia are real signs of proximity to the timeless mysteries that lie beyond more copacetic conceptions of the everyday.

The process of development is one of the most spectacular and obscure happenings that can be observed, poked and pondered during our limited life spans. We, as animals, as ego-apes, as thinking meat, as self-reflexive mutants can study developmental biology to examine our absurd, vital appearance in this pluriform world. For me, development is life’s own, self-organizing, autopoietic sculptural process.

Through homologous extrapolation, a thoughtful observer can glean a healthy psychosis about his or her own anatomical happenstance. Have you ever been struck with wonder at the creative, enigmatic ‘variations on a theme’ that make up the segments which connect you from head to toe? Isn’t it odd that a second head can be induced to organize at an alternative region from an ‘original’ body plan? The backs of our knees are just re-mixes of the fronts of our elbows. Most of us have two nostrils, two nipples, two ovaries or testicles yet only one head and only one anus. Gross anatomy functions within a kind of inherited numerology: random, permutative, impertinent, and ad hoc.

Initial Attempts at Embryonic Fish Head Transplant Surgery
Dissection Microscope 40X

I pursued actual experience with experimental embryology simply because I was curious and wanted to play with early body plan formation. I admit, the surgical procedure of this sculptural methodology is quite meddlesome. We must remember that the natural beauty of our segmented and bilateral bodies are the result of aberrant occurrences of a similar surreal collage vitality. We all have gone through primal metamorphoses on the way to achieving full grown anatomy. We are all congenital malformations that have stood the test of diversity versus time. This poking and jabbing is only a vamping of the creative play of organic mutations. Every day, the flux of morphology continues to reshape and remold concrete concepts of species integrity.

The process of objective analysis assumes, A Priori, that nature will reveal her secrets when interrogated. And the methods of interrogation are extreme. Often, you must destroy something to comprehend it. It is for this reason that I refer to the process of discovery as perverse. And when we display what we have found, whether in a scientific journal or an art exhibition, we display pornography. By bragging about our power to apply both theory and practice towards a spectatorship and their arousal, we display Vital Hardcore, explicit and zoomed in. By the amount of detail and specificity, by the ornate and baroque nature of these prurient exposures, I conclude that Science is a subset of Art, which is a subset of Pornography. Science contains such specialized fetishes, such truly obsessive fragmentation, that I dubiously honor it with the label -- ‘one of the most demented practices in the pantheon of our sexological proclivities.’

Interference with developing embryological stages, flesh-scaping, harvesting embryos for stem cell cultures, late term abortion, in vitro fertilization and post-human engineering may be high fetishism but they are not unnatural acts. They are also not inherently evil. Done correctly, they may be great perversions of normative and mass acceptable cultural behavior. Often, attempts at quantifying daily occurring, global perversions (of local social norms) that can be interpreted as both natural and beneficial may leave us in the realm of the innumerable. Life on earth is curious, intuitive and creative. We are mammals, with eyes and fingers and noses. So we poke and prod, sniff and stare, even into those areas that defy the social norm. This is the infinite approach to the mutual unknown that scientists, artists and even most novelty seeking organisms entertain.

For some, the endless need for the erotic control of space should have its limits. For others, the limits of the possible realms of bio-sensuality have not even been approached. But, I ask you to be critical, analytical and even flexible, at times, as you define your own limits to the ongoing interactive inspection of the living world around and within.