This Museum Documents All the Ways Man Has Messed With Nature

Pittsburgh's Center for PostNatural History is, according to the museum's curator, "dedicated to living organisms that have been intentionally altered by people."

by H. Alan Scott
May 13 2016, 4:07pm

Museum curator Richard Pell and a mutant goat called Freckles

The Center for PostNatural History is a small museum in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. According to the museum's curator, Richard Pell, the museum is "dedicated to living organisms that have been intentionally altered by people; anything from the domestication of pets and animals, all the way through genetic engineers, synthetic biology, stuff like that."

I went to the center last week and met up with Pell for a tour of the most interesting pieces in his collection.

Pell has a background in art and engineering. Originally he focused on the politics of emerging technologies, working with groups of people that were building anti-authoritarian robots. Their robots were intended to act as activists, and would write graffiti, produce political slogans, and intervene in places they weren't allowed to go. In 2004, he was introduced to the field of synthetic biology through his interest in how genes could assist robots. As he doesn't have a background in biology, he was hoping to find a museum that covered the topic, but no such place existed.

So he started collecting. And, within a few years, he had enough to exhibit. By 2012, he'd opened the center. Now, in addition to its permanent collection in Pittsburgh, there are a couple of traveling shows in Europe.

The first thing you see when you enter the center's lobby is a large stuffed goat.

"That's Freckles," Pell told me. "She's a genetically modified goat. She produced spider silk in her milk in a lab in Logan, Utah. She was one of the first breeders of that line of goats that was created, and she is the only one on display anywhere."

Pell explained that there's a huge demand for spider silk, as it's used in armor and bulletproof vests. "Spiders themselves make small quantities of it," he said. "They resist being farmed, they eat one another, they're anti-social. We already figured out how to farm goats, so the thinking is why not hijack the goats milk-making capacity and have it make spider silk?"

He went on to describe an artist that grew human skin cells into a matrix of the goat silk. She was able to fire a bullet into it without breaking the skin. She'd made bulletproof skin.

On the wall, I noticed a photo of Henrietta Lacks, the subject of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which detailed how Lax became an unwitting donor of cells extracted from her cancerous tumor, which were used to create the first human immortal cell line—a line used to this day for medical research. The Lacks family have never been compensated for her essential contribution to medical research, some of which includes cancer research, lifesaving HIV/AIDS treatments, and the polio vaccine.

Next, Pell showed me the museum's collection of fruit flies.

"Scientists love fruit flies because they have the shortest life cycle," he said. The fruit flies on display at the museum, he explained, were used for research into a gene that deals with a specific muscle fiber in the shoulder. "They're tweaking the gene," he said. "They make a new fruit fly line, they grow it out, then they dissect it. They're not interested in fruit fly shoulders necessarily, but rather this one gene and what it does."

He then showed me an egg that helps create a vaccine for the flu virus, some glow in the dark fish that help identify brain activity, and the testicles of a cat.

The cat testicles, Pell told me, were to represent the forced castration of people in the early part of the 20th century. "They felt they were creating a future where you'd have no disease. You'd have no crime, no poverty—we forget that," he explained. "They thought that humans were degenerating because of bad breeding, and that all of social inequity could be tied to genetics. Germany was paying attention, they adopted it, and it wasn't until the end of World War II that the idea of eugenics was finally realized to be so obviously bad. But that notion that the flaws in collective character could be fixed still persists, and when you talk about gene therapy, it sort of comes back again. It's still a complicated issue, but we haven't learned anything from that past, we kind of erased that history."

Elsewhere in the museum, you can see an alcoholic rat, Sea-Monkeys, and GM plants.

It struck me how interconnected all of the things Pell showed me are. The reason Freckles was able to create spider silk is the same reason forced sterilization came about: It's all out of the common goal for discovering something that will either tell us more about the world we live in or make it better.

That's not to say it's all great (please point your attention to the poor dudes above that lost their testicles), but based on what Pell has shown me, it feels clear that for all the bad disruptions, there have been a lot of good things that have transpired.

"We really try to give our visitors the opportunity to form their own opinion, or even to change their mind from whatever perception it was," said Pell as we wrapped up the tour. "Hopefully people leave with some nagging questions. That's what we want. We want people to be thinking way harder about this stuff. The answers aren't easy. They don't fit into slogans. The political rhetoric around biotech, and all the issues that run into this stuff, have become so shrill that there's no space for actual thinking. You're just trying to decide what lever to pull, what flag to carry. We need a lot more nuanced thought."

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