What is Death on Mars
Using the speculative design context of humans living on Mars in 2130, Death on Mars explores how synthetic biology holds the potential to be integrated into intensely human experiences, death and grief. Using a synthetic chromosome encoded with computational data (in the junk DNA), we propose a future death practice in which the memories of a deceased martian identities live on inside of Memorial Plants. Our project was awarded the prize for Outstanding Presentation at the 2019 Biodesign Challenge Summit at MoMA in New York City.
Why did the team explore death
Synthetic biology is becoming more common in industries and our lives. Because of this, it is important to include non-scientists in the conversations that arise from consciously engineering with biology. Tombstones, burial clothing, caskets, urns for ashes, and other materials have been used throughout history to memorialise our loved ones. We envision that as new technologies become part of our lives, so too will they become integrated into emerging cultural traditions.
But as we start to use biology as a “technology” we need to understand the limitations and consequences that come with such a technology. The data we encode in the plant, the photos, videos, songs, recipes, etc., will slowly become mutated and changed by the natural processes of the plant. Just as our memories change and mutate over time, so too will the memories encoded into the DNA of the plant. We see this process as mirroring the natural processes of live and death, while also giving insight into some characteristics of synthetic biology.
Speculative design projects give us the ability to explore relevant ideas in a context where we won’t run into the normal creative barriers. A project exploring how synthetic biology could be integrated into cultural experiences like death and grief could be difficult and even insensitive to discuss if we tried to design for a culture. Given that sustaining life on Mars requires synthetic biology it seemed a natural fit.
Furthermore, the highly utilitarian systems that would be needed to sustain life on Mars would mean that corpses would be recycled for their nutritional value. We considered this an un-empathetic system, as it implies that nutrition is the most important thing our loved ones pass onto us once they die. This all meant that Death on Mars became a pretty great occasion to explore the role of synthetic biology when we think beyond just survival.
How are memories encoded into the plant
The process of developing the Memorial Plant starts by corroborating the memory of the deceased person by collecting all the memories that the loved ones want to memorialise. These can then be documented and the data that makes up, say, a song, can be converted from computer code into DNA code using an algorithm. Once the song exists as DNA code denoted as As, Ts, Gs and Cs, these ‘memory genes’ would be synthesised and assembled into a synthetic chromosome. The synthetic chromosome that contains the memory genes can then be transformed into plant protoplast cells. Each transformed protoplast is then regenerated into an entirely new plant—a Memorial Plant—a living vessel for the memory of deceased Martian humans.
How will the memories change the plant
The synthetic chromosome would be designed so that the synthetic memory genes would operate without interfering with the plant’s biological functions. The memory genes do not code for proteins and do not share sequence identity with any native plant gene.
Can you get the memories out of the plant
A promoter in a cell helps the cell sense when it needs to perform a function or make a change. The memory genes are designed to be under the control of plant promoters which are turned on and off by changes to the environment. For example, by using a water-responsive promoter to control gene expression, many RNA copies of the memory gene can be produced when the plant is watered. This means that when you care for the plant by water it, the plant produces lots of copies of the song that was encoded. Finally, using an RNA sequencing device that is connected to the plant and reads RNA in real time, a grieving Martian could retrieve the memories encoded in the synthetic chromosome by pairing their electronic devices to the RNA sequencer.