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Debating Immortality

In February 2005, we published “Do You Want to Live Forever?,” a cover story by physician and writer Sherwin Nuland that took a skeptical view of the claims of Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biologist at the University of Cambridge who believes human aging can be “fixed.” What follows is a letter to de Grey, care of our editor, from Richard Miller, a professor of pathology at the University of Michigan and a biogerontologist.

Dear Aubrey,

I saw you on TV the other day and was hoping that now that the aging problem has been solved, you might have time to help me in my publicity campaign to solve a similar engineering challenge: the problem of producing flying pigs.

A theoretical analysis of the problem shows that there are only seven reasons why pigs cannot, at present, fly:

1. They do not have wings.

2. They are too heavy to get off

the ground.

3. The so-called “law” of gravity.

4. They cannot climb trees.

5. Hair, instead of feathers.

6. They do not wish to fly.

7. They do not tweet.

Although I have been too busy in my day job to find time to work in a laboratory, I have been able to show clearly that these problems can be solved, using an approach I call Plan for Engineered Porcine Aviation, or PEPA.

1. No wings: Genetic engineering will be used to alter Hox-box promoters and micro-RNA gene enhancers to reactivate the pre-wing somite program. A dab of stem cell therapy might help here, too.

2. Too heavy: Although the average pig cell is a chunky 20 microns in diameter, microbiologists have recently documented free-living organisms as small as .8 microns in diameter. By the inverse-cube law, a reduction in mean cell diameter of 25 will lead to a reduction in volume of 253 = 15,625, with a corresponding drop in pig weight.

3. Gravity problem: This one’s easy. Move the pig to Phobos, one of the low-gravity satellites of Mars, where people are going anyway.

4. Can’t climb trees: Who says pigs cannot climb trees? Because so far most of their food has been placed in troughs or in the undergrowth of French forests, pigs have not previously been motivated to climb trees.

5. No feathers: The Drosophila antennapedia gene (for which a Nobel Prize was recently awarded) allows the transformation of bristles into legs or antennas.

6. Lack of motivation: Easy – LSD.

7. Tweet problem: Implantable helium sacs, just under the armpits, so whenever they flap their wings helium gets squirted into their vocal cavities.

Although each of these strategies is based upon sound scientific precedent or fantasy, nonetheless some of my conservative critics here on the local faculty have argued that no one has yet proven that any one of these methods has been shown to convert porkers to parakeets. But no one has yet tried all seven of them together, don’t you see!

Amazing though it may seem, I believe that we are now at what I call a “cusp” in the history of either porki-culture or -aviation or both. Pigs born before April 14, 2009, will be destined to a life on the ground, rooting about for scraps, grunting unpleasantly, and constantly getting their curly little tails entangled in low-lying shrubs. Pigs born after April 15, 2009 (or perhaps a few days later), will in contrast waft lazily through the lambent skies, tweeting merry greetings to one another, nibbling at the occasional air truffle, and enjoying panoramic views of either Cambridge or Phobos, depending.

Aubrey de Grey declined our offer to print a short response. Find his full response here.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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