“Is death permanent?” is a big question, very interdisciplinary. But between philosophers, artists, IT professionals, and scientists, it’s one that being chipped down into small, manageable questions.
For example, a team consisting of curious synthetic biologists, artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Dr. Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks, and olfactory researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas (with support from IFF, Inc.) resulted in the revolutionary exhibition that allowed people to experience flowers once considered dead.
A long-lost cousin of the Hibiscus flower we know today, the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock was just a sample in a Harvard library. Until researchers at Ginkgo Bioworks decided to undertake the project of sequencing long-extinct DNA. Now, it is hard to preserve DNA, because once the organism dies and its metabolic functions have stopped, the DNA begins to disintegrate. Using known DNA sequences that encode for smell-producing enzymes from other organisms, these detectives were able to piece together the genes that would code for fragrant enzymes in this flower. Now this is the important part – they didn’t code for the entire plant. This was not an attempt to reconstruct the plant (or, raise the dead, if you want to be dramatic).
Based on this primary data, olfactory researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas recomposed the flowers’ smells, using varied concentrations of the molecules identified, or comparative ones. It is important to note that there were all these possibilities, because we cannot know what exactly the plant smelled like. The fragrant compounds they found were mostly terpenes, but there were probably other substances in the stems or leaves or roots of the plant that gave it a more complex smell than we’ll ever know.
So if after all of this fuss, these possibilities are all we have, then why should we care? Well, Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has a beautiful and succinct answer in the form of her Resurrecting the Sublime exhibit. It consists of smells as well as visuals, to give a multi-sensory experience to the audience, taking them to a place that no longer exists.
This is not de-extinction, as Dr. Ginsberg states. We cannot move back in time, or bring the past into the present. The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock probably wouldn’t survive outside of a carefully maintained greenhouse today, so there is no point to resurrecting it. Instead, this is a win for biotechnology and for art and for history. Through this project, we’ve discovered more about the past than we’ve ever known before. The archives of history must be updated constantly, and this project has given to humanity, the gift of knowledge.