«God’s word is still imperfect, but if we work together, we can make God perfect.»
This is only one of the provoking statements made by one of the leaders of the Earth BioGenome Project – the largest on-going project to decrypt the DNA structures of all living beings.
The Chinese BioGenome laboratory has undertaken one of the most complex and seminal challenges to scientific research in our time: the complete digital copy of life itself. The goal is to decode 3000 genome structures per year, and it will be achieved in the near future. €1000 is the current market price of a decrypted genome. About 2 million individual specimens have already been sampled and archived.
Although Christian Frei’s Genesis 2.0, featured in Vision de Réel in Nyon this April, starts rather inoffensively with natural scenery as its backdrop, the social criticism that the film presents should not be mistaken.
A dangerous journey through Siberian waters
The camera follows some of the mammoth tusk hunters working in the high and hidden northern regions of Siberia. Every year they risk a dangerous boat journey through the icy ocean to get to the «New Siberian Islands». Here, the melting permafrost unveils a remarkable number of the magnificent prehistoric animals. All of these mammoth tusk hunters are marked by symptoms of isolation and solitude, spending several months in this hostile area. For several hundred dollars they risk their lives. The real profit, however, is taken by middlemen who also pressure the crew to stop filming at the point when the tusks are handed over to them.
«One well-preserved horn could cover their modest living expenses for the following years.»
Maxim Arbugaev – Christian Frei’s collaborator and co-director of Genesis 2.0 – spent a full season with the hunters, capturing their daily life and their relentless digging in the icy ground which resembles an addiction. One well-preserved horn could cover the tusk hunters’ modest living expenses for years to come. But their hunts seem to be damned. Through voice-over we hear myths, legends, strange warning stories and old songs concerning all those who touch the cadavers of the sacred animals.
Arbugaev and Frei present two opposing realities – far-off nature and high-tech genome research. They communicate constantly by email, and the documentary offers an elegant connection between the two worlds. Animal bodies, sometimes whole, freshly released from the permafrost, give off liquid or even blood in some rare situations. If only one living cell could be recovered here, the artificial reconstruction of the mammoth as a living animal would become possible.
Dr George Church at Harvard Medical School is one of the key figures in genetic engineering in the world today, systematically pursuing the idea of planting a mammoth cell in an elephant’s womb to produce a resurrection. Thousands of other «interventions» are already being practiced in an extensive and growing number of studies and experiments worldwide.
For a mere $100,000 price, a beloved but deceased pet can be recreated from a single cell. This, however, is only a small secondary business that is already practiced on a daily basis in other laboratories such as South Korea’s Sooam Biotech.
The first International Genetically Engineered Machine-competition (iGEM) – today’s most prestigious forum for experimental synthetic biology – started in 2004 with only five teams. In 2007 the competition counted 32 teams, and by 2016 there were 300 with about 5600 actively engaged students. George Church wanted not only to make a clone but to create a new animal: a hybrid, cold-resistant woolly mammoth. To underline the practical approach, Arbugaev and Frei show images of already-created hybrid animals, such as mixtures of horses and zebras, among many others. All of them are viable beings invented in laboratories.
Writing new DNA codes
Beyond this experimental biology, Genesis 2.0 finally touches on the ultimate challenge: Synthetic biotechnology today is not limiting itself to reading DNA codes but intends to start writing them.
«Creating living beings on request is the real goal, and Homo sapiens is certainly the objective of these efforts.»
Creating living beings on request is the real goal, and Homo sapiens is certainly the objective of these efforts. For example, the genetic sequences causing Down’s syndrome have already been identified, and can be isolated and removed in a prenatal state.
Avoiding illness is of course the main legitimation of this rapidly-developing research, which in the not-too-distant future will be able to produce specific capabilities, emotional dispositions, and intelligence levels. The horrific vision of prefabricated children, depending on their parents’ investment capacities – of course not cheap – becomes frighteningly real. We can easily imagine children bringing lawsuits against their parents for not investing enough in their genetic equipment.
Challenging questions remain unanswered
Max Richter and Edward Artemyev underline the challenging questions in Genesis 2.0, with a suggestive melancholic and dramatic soundtrack that includes folk songs. Genesis 2.0 is an important testimony of contemporary culture and near-future perspectives – pointing out the dawning apocalypse of human life. It unveils the current workings of the transformation of synthetic bodies and minds, neurologically modified and expanded by implanted components working as information receptors controlled externally. Who can still prevent this future? And who is willing to do so?