An apple tree bearing human DNA: Arts students seek the ultimate in forbidden fruit

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The Independent Online

Two arts students intend to grow trees whose DNA has been spliced with that of humans, giving a whole new meaning to eating apples called Granny Smiths.

The scheme would replace the unused, or "junk", DNA in the trees' chromosomes with the non-junk parts of the human donor's, to create a hybrid where the human genes were inactive, but still present in every cell of the plant - including any fruit.

The intention was to create a modern form of memorial, said Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara, of the Interaction Design Department at the Royal College of Art. "We are interested in the moral, ethical and social issues this new kind of tree will raise," Mr Tremmel said. "How will a person's approach to a tree change, if the tree carries human DNA? Will it still be just a tree, or will it be more?"

The scheme has already aroused the interest of researchers at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, and the students think commercial development might be possible.

The genetic splicing can be done, according to Dr Bernard Lamb, a reader in genetics at Imperial College, London. "It is absolutely possible to replace a tree's junk DNA with the DNA of a human," he said.

"Junk" DNA consists of long stretches of normal-looking DNA that has no known use, and does not contain any active genes - the segments of DNA that code for the proteins of the organism. Humans have large amounts of junk DNA: about 97 per cent of the 3 billion DNA pairs in the genome are thought to be "junk", and so inter-changeable. Apples have similar amounts of junk DNA, making it feasible to replace the "junk" regions with the 3 per cent of useful human DNA, given enough resources.

But growing such "hybrid" trees might face a legal problem: under current legislation they would probably be classed as genetically modified, even though none of the tree's active genes should have been affected.

Mr Tremmel, 26, said: "We aren't quite sure about the legal position. We aren't really changing the plant, so I'm not sure if that's a way around it."

The Austrian MA student and his Japanese colleague hope to raise the sponsorship to create the first such "hybrid" trees within a year. "Life is DNA," Mr Tremmel said. "The basic idea is that if you can pass your DNA into a tree you would have another chance to prolong your life in storage."