At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a rather macabre exhibit has been on display. Entitled ‘Victimless Leather’, it’s a miniature ‘leather’ jacket made from living mouse stem cells growing on a polymer matrix.

As art, one interpretation could be that it shows how artifacts currently made from dead animal bits can instead be grown from tissue cultures; another might be that it illustrates the incredibly weird implications of modern biology.

Unfortunately, given unlimited nutrients and a lack of other constraints, tissue cultures have a tendency to keep on growing, which this one did. After a week or two, it clogged several of its nutrient feeds, making it necessary that it be put down. “I felt cruel when I turned it off,” said Paola Antonelli, the senior curator responsible for killing it.

There’s been a lot of coverage of this; here’s a few articles:

A related issue is ‘test tube meat’ – meat grown from cell cultures in a laboratory. Intriguingly, PETA, a sometimes radical animal rights group, have stumped up a $1,000,000 reward for its development.. Clearly this is because this approach would alleviate the suffering of a great many farm animals. It may well also reduce the environmental burden caused by industrial scale animal husbandry.

I find both of these items really intriguing, as it brings up many interesting questions. If you’re game, please leave a comment with your answers to these questions..

  1. Is the use of tissue cultures more or less ethical than the use of parts taken from dead animals? Are concerns of dignity relevant here?
  2. Is it ethical to use human tissue cultures in art?
  3. Is it ethical to use human tissue cultured from human induced pluripotent stem cells?
  4. For those who aren’t against the use of embryonic stem cells in research, how would you feel about tissue cultured from such a line being used in art, remembering that this wouldn’t necessitate the destruction of additional embryos – once created, the cell line can be grown and divided effectively indefinitely.
  5. What other uses of human tissue cultures are ethical? If it’s more ethical to use tissue cultures than animal parts, what uses of human parts cross the line into acceptable? Transplant organ growth? Regenerative therapies? Long Pig?
  6. Is forming an emotional relationship with an object made from live cells more or less strange than forming emotional relationships with animals? With non-living organisms? With plants? Would you love your living leather coat more or less than your regular leather coat

(x-posted to LJ)


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