Hybrid Problems: Chimerism, Synthetic Life, and Mixed Heritage

[A hybrid orchid. Photo by Mark Freeth.] 

[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 2]

Genomes of indigenous people, which often include genes found nowhere else in the world, can be powerful symbols for nations that want to showcase their uniqueness. 

But when the Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genómica  (INMEGEN)  set out to find examples of Mexico’s indigenous genome, they ran into problems. Namely, that pretty much every population in Mexico, no matter how remote, includes people of mixed ethnic ancestry.

INMEGEN’s attempts to reconstruct an indigenous identity were the focus of not one, but two talks at Harvard STS’s “Molecularization of Identity Conference“, one by Vivette García Deister–who teaches in the Science & Technology Studies department at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México– and one by Ernesto Schwartz Marin of Durham University.  Since that conference was chock-full of important studies on the social dynamics around science, I’m writing a 3-part recap, of which this post is part 2. (See Part 1 here).

García Deister began her presentation by introducing the concept of Mestizaje, a blend of Native American, Spanish/European, and African heritage that characterizes Latin American countries. The majority of Mexicans are of Mestizo–or “mixed” descent–so naturally, the Mexican government wanted to know the ratios of  “Amerindian”, “European”, and “African” genes in their country’s population.

To do that, they had to try to establish a baseline “Indigenous” genome to compare to their representative “Mestizo” genome. García Deister calls these hypothetical representative genomes “Genetic Avatars”. 


[Interestingly, the “avatars” in the uber-successful movie Avatar are literally synthetic genetic hybrids, with human DNA spliced into Na’vi genome. Image by Michael Kordahl.]

Colonist outsiders love to look for “Genetic Avatars” because it gives them a way to quantify and tell stories about Latin American hybridity, or MestizajeGarcía Deister argued.  Scientists and policy makers  justify it by arguing that it’s important to know their country’s history and vital to look for genetic clues to various diseases.

But does any of that make the Mexican Genome Project any less of a colonial enterprise? Not really…

Mestizaje, Avatars, & the Search for the Fountain of Biological Identity

To understand mestizaje, you have to know a smidge of Mexican history 101.  Prior to the 1500s, Mexico was dominated by native tribes, such as the Toltecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs, among others. But when Spaniards arrived in Latin America and began conquistador-ing–exploring jungles, murdering the locals, spreading smallpox, contracting syphillis, looting temples for gold, etc.--they brought a whole new genetic lineage into the mix.  And when they decided to settle Latin America permanently, they started importing large numbers of Europeans and slaves from Africa.  

By the time genome sequencing became available,  the Mexican population had been mixing genes from three (or four) continents for half a millennium.  Finding indigenous villages where the Spanish hadn’t left genetic traces of themselves proved extremely difficult.  Once INMEGEN settled on three potential indigenous genomes, they realized that these people were coming from very different indigenous populations. (Mexico is a big country. Genes  indigenous to Oaxaca were actually quite likely to be different from genes native to Baja California.)

García Deister pointed out that the people supporting genome sequencing tend to talk about indigeneity in one of two ways: Mythical Indigineity and Pathological Indigeneity.  

Stories about Mythical Indigeneity present the genetic avatar as a lost innocent that has disappeared due to colonization. Schwartz-Marin’s presentation echoed this point later in the day when he spoke about how many people assume the Mexican government will “protect” Mexico’s unique indigenous and mestizo biology.  People seeking out the Mythical Indigenous Genetic Avatar feel almost a nostalgia toward that figure, which they see as uniquely Mexican.

In contrast, Pathological Indigeneity focuses on using the genome as a way to identify who is diseased or at risk for disease. For instance, scientists say that indigenous populations are at higher risk for diabetes and obesity; they do not talk about Europeans foisting a disease-causing diet on Native Americans.  (Interestingly, when it comes to infectious disease, most Mexicans think of Europeans as the disease-bringers because of small pox, García Deister noted during the Q & A. But when it comes to “genetic diseases”, many people assume the indigenous genome is the flawed one.)

Interestingly, both of sets of ideas were in place before genome sequencing began. In fact, they drove the fascination and investment in sequencing Mexican genomes.

INMEGEN found some interesting results–according to the estimate García Deister shared, the Mexican population’s genes are about 52% American Indian, 41% European, and 3% African–but the discussion about what DNA sequences mean is deeply affected by history and social dynamics.

Since the population is so thoroughly mixed, the geneticists ended up having to do a lot of “salvage genetics”, Schwartz-Marin, explained. They couldn’t find an “intact” Indigenous genome, so they had to reconstruct what an indigenous genome might be like from various bits and pieces.  In that way, looking for indigenous genomes in a Mestizo nation is like looking for unspoiled Nature in the Anthropocene. No scientist, no matter how talented, can reverse or isolate a sample from the effects of history.


[One vision of a chimera. Image via Creative Commons & Flickr]

We Are All Chimeras Now

Mexico is far from the only country displaying a fascination with its population’s mixed ancestry. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “Find Your Roots” project came up during panel discussion as an example of genetic investigation that does relatively little to dispel stereotypes.  Harvard grad student Elise K. Burton also presented a paper about the history of Iran’s genome sequencing project. The Iranians placed a great deal of emphasis on their country’s genetic variation in order to attain “a veneer of diversity”.  It didn’t necessarily mean  that ethnic and religious minorities were actually empowered.

People and animals of mixed heritage have long been objects of fascination, and when the mix of biological traits crosses a perceived “line between species”, that fascination is often mixed with horror.  But the fact of the modern world is that most of us, who live in countries with long colonial histories are in some ways  hybrids and those of us who use electronic telecommunications to exchange ideas are in a sense cyborgs Even though many people describe hybrids and cyborgs as creatures that blur boundaries of humanity, most people reading this post are children of boundary-transgressing systems.

This concern with becoming hybridized was a running theme throughout “Molecularizing Identity”. A few speakers went so far as to suggest that we’re all chimeras already. 

Sociologist Amy Hinterberger of University of Warwick was the first speaker at the conference to explicitly invoke “The Chimera”, a monster from Greek mythology with two heads (one lion, one goat), a serpentine tail, and the ability to breathe fire.  Scientists borrowed the name “Chimera” to describe lab-made organisms with genes from multiple organisms. 

Science’s chimeras include pigs with genetically human hearts and/or livers (called “bespoke pigs”), mice whose neural crest stem cells or immune system stem cells were removed and replaced with human stem cells (called “humanized mice”), bacteria that have been genetically engineered to make biofuels, heart cells that are born in dishes but know how to beat, and even genetically human stem cells.

Hinterberger argued that chimeras are becoming so numerous that the rules around who is (and isn’t) a monster are beginning to change.  At the same time, scientifically-created chimeras generate a lot of anxiety. Do they deserve human rights? Is a mouse with human glial cells coating its neurons on its way to personhood or is it still just a clever GMO mouse?

(She also shared my favorite story out of the whole conference. Two people on a research ethics board were arguing about stem cell ethics.  One person, the biologist, said, “I’m so tired of people arguing about stem cells. They’re just smudges on petri dishes!” …To which a lawyer on the board replied, “If stem cells are just smudges, would you eat one?”)

Queering Monsanto?

Harvard anthropologist Sophia Roosth took the “natural rights for synthetic chimeras”-angle a step further by arguing that when scientists transfer genes from one organism to another, they’re creating a new form of kinship: a synthetic biological one.

She grounded her argument in existing ideas from Queer Theory, a school of thought in gender studies that favors fluid and varied identities (in contrast to norms that treat gender, race, and other identities as permanent, fixed, and non-overlapping categories). In particular, she drew from work on queer families, which differ from traditional patriarchal families in that people can actively choose who their queer kin are.

Selection and gene-swapping have been happening since the beginning of life itself, biologists argue, so presumably what unnerves people about synthetic biology is the fact that humans can choose to make gene transfer happen between unrelated organisms. 

Splicing fish genes into a tomato is a departure from evolutionary history and the sequence of organisms begetting other organisms, but is it possible to see synthetic biology as creating a new form of relatedness between species?

These ideas might sound out there, but the rules of thumb that biologists use to draw lines between related species are actually somewhat arbitrary. (Especially when dealing with bacteria that can trade genes.) Biologists do their best to back up their definitions of species with empirical data points such as whether or not a hybrid of 2 breeds can have offspring of its own, but species definitions reliably induce heated discussion and epistemological angst. The animals they describe are part of physical reality, but “species” are categories that humans invent in order to communicate. In other words, species are social constructs. 

So a trangressing a species boundary by splicing a gene into another organism could be considered a violation of the species social norm and not a violation of “natural law”. 

In fact, many–if not most–scholars in Science & Technology studies would argue that the concept of “Nature” is a construct, an umbrella “Other” that people for lumping all animals, plants, bacteria, geological phenomena, and weather patterns into a “Them”. Once all non-human biological and geochemical entities are safely labeled “Them”, humans can commence their Man vs. Nature struggle and subdue the unruly (or save the doomed) “Nature” without feeling like we’re harming (or saving) something we’re part of.  (If you wanna dig into this concept, look up Bruno Latour.)

The Nature vs. Nurture conceptual binary helps most people get through the day, but it also enables environmental destruction and justifications for racism, sexism, and transphobia. 

So on one level, Roosth’s presentation was a radical but logical extension of treating the “Man-made vs. Natural” distinction as akin to the “Man vs. Woman” binary.  At the same time, when  feminist social scientists who analyze the practice of biology get together, you can safely assume you’re talking to a room full of liberals. Most people listening to that particular talk would consider Queer Theorists to be the “good guys” (…in so far as they accept the “good vs. bad” binary…) and view imperialists and capitalists as “bad guys”.

During the Q&A, Sheila Jasanoff asked Roosth how the queerness of synthetic biology would square with science’s history of supporting imperialism and capitalism. After all, Monsanto is just about as exploitative as companies come, but they are also one of the biggest hubs for synthetic biology and genetic modification. So what are the political implications of “queering” a technique that Monsanto uses to generate profit? 

It’s a legit question. How can science, traditionally a tool of rich, white, patriarchy-upholding, pro-military capitalists, change itself to be more feminist, less racist, or less elitist, let alone queer? (At the same time, is it fair to frame science as incapable of reinventing or contradicting itself?)

I definitely don’t have an answer, but #WelcometotheTrip.


Many people and institutions fixate on identifying completely “natural” or “indigenous” entities, but the real world is full of hybrids. So why do so we demonize hybrids and chimeras?

And will changing applications of technology force us to stop treating mixed-lineage entities as exotic and/or monstrous?


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