July 19, 2012 at 5:53 PM ET
A British artist’s plan to create a mouse with Elvis Presley’s DNA has set websites buzzing over the past week, but right now it’s nothing more than an art-school concept. And it's not clear whether the concept will ever go any further, due to ethical and legal concerns about blending human and animal DNA.
"The purpose of the work was to raise those almost frightening issues," artist Koby Barhad told me. Mission accomplished, Koby.
Actually, celebrity DNA is quite the commodity. A few years ago, a venture called MyDNAFragrance marketed several perfumes that supposedly reflected the DNA coding of Elvis as well as Michael Jackson and other dead celebs. (Sorry, those celebrity-themed fragrances, including "Blue Suede," are no longer available.) The DNA for that project came from University Archives' collection of historical hair. The Elvis hair that Barhad used came from another source: an eBay vendor who was selling strands for $22. (He says he also bought strands of hair attributed to Princess Diana and President John F. Kennedy.)
Barhad, a 35-year-old MFA student at London's Royal College of Art, said he didn't actually submit the Elvis strands for DNA sequencing. Instead, he conducted a practice run with the aid of a couple of researchers from Imperial College. The scientists analyzed DNA extracted from their own strands of hair, as well as from cheek swabs, to confirm that it would be possible to get some sort of genetic reading from the hair alone.
Barhad was particularly interested in seeing whether the DNA tests could identify a variant of the human ACTN3 gene that has been associated with athletic performance. "We proved that those particular scientists didn't have that gene," he told me. Theoretically, then, the DNA tests might be able to identify the genetic signatures of particular traits in Presley's DNA — although realistically, there's some question about how much the DNA might have degraded over the decades.
The next step in the concept would be to breed mice that reflected that genetic signature. Theoretically, you could insert a string of code from the Elvis genome into the desired mouse gene, through a procedure similar to that used to create lab animals with specific mutations. Barhad said another option would be to identify a genetic twist in the mouse genome that parallels the twist in the Elvis genome. For example, if Presley had a particular mutation of the ACTN3 gene, mice could be bred with a similar mutation.
The final step in Barhad's art project, titled "All That I Am," would put the Elvis-themed mice in a variety of postmodernistic cages that reflect phases of the rock star's life: One cage might have a funhouse mirror to enlarge the mouse's image, just as Presley's ego was enlarged by fame's mirror. Another would put the mouse on a treadmill, calling to mind how "Elvis worked himself to death" in his final years.
It's worth emphasizing that the Elvis mice do not exist, despite what some websites initially reported.
"I guess the project created a space to imagine a scenario we are all afraid of and want to experience at the same time," Farhad said in an email, "and that was the reason all the news [sites] published it as if I produced this specific mouse, instead of just suggesting it. The funny, or actually scary, thing is that a place in the U.S. ... already contacted me to buy the specific mice. So I think it kind of proves that it is much more real than I even imagined it would be. I'm still writing emails to everyone saying I didn't actually go as far as producing the clones."
In today's follow-up Skype voice call, Barhad said he had no intention of creating an Elvis mouse. "The thing I'm thinking of doing is having my own mouse" that would reflect his own genetic code, he said.
However, Barhad said he'd have to do some more research before going forward with that part of the art.
"Humanized" versions of genes, such as the FOXP2 gene that's associated with speech, have been inserted in mice for research purposes for years. But it's one thing to do that sort of thing under the stringent guidelines that govern genetic studies, and quite another to do it for an art exhibit — even if it's an exhibit designed to call attention to the controversy over transgenic DNA.
"I'm actually going over the law on that," Barhad told me.
Would it be wise for him do it? Or would Elvis observe that when it comes to splicing celebrity DNA, "only fools rush in"?
More about Elvis ... and DNA:
Tip o' the Log to Wired UK's Ian Steadman.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.