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 embryos 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
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.
Attempts at Embryonic Fish Head Transplant Surgery
Video Microscopy, Dissection Microscope 40X
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
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 1920s. 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 quandarys 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 lifes
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? Isnt 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.
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.