Will Artists’ Plan to Extract DNA from Dead Author’s Feces Work?

Sometimes you have to suffer for your art. Take, for example, a pair of artists who will are trying to extract DNA from the author William S. Burroughs' preserved poop. They want to create a "mutant sculpture" for their forthcoming exhibit, "Mutate or Die: a W.S. Burroughs Biotechnological Bestiary," and plan to fire DNA-covered gold dust from a device called a gene gun into a mélange of sperm, blood and more excrement.

But will this effort even work?

The artists, Adam Zaretsky and Tony Allard, write in an H+ Magazine article that they'll fire the writer's DNA into other cells in homage to the controversial writer's "cut-up methodology." Just as Burroughs would rearrange text from different existing works to form new creations, the artists will blast living cells with foreign DNA. Using a gene gun is a nice touch, given the writer's own history with firearms: Burroughs allegedly shot his wife by accident while drunk in 1951 and later created his "Shotgun Art" by taking aim at spray-paint cans suspended in front of a canvas.

Zaretsky and Allard will first have to extract DNA from the poop. "This is perfectly possible," said Heather Coyle, an associate professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven. Coyle notes that there are commercially available stool extraction kits for DNA, which remove the unwanted parts of the sample, like lipids and carbohydrates, leaving only DNA behind. Using a technique called multiple displacement amplification (MDA), the artists next will indiscriminately increase the amount of any DNA they find.

In case you're curious about the ethics of pulling DNA from a dead person's, er, remains, Zaretsky and Allard say that the Burroughs estate has approved their plans for the author's poop, a jar of which was collected and preserved by his friends. But in actuality, that permission might not be necessary: The DNA they'll be working with is unlikely to have come from the writer, said one of the pair’s scientific collaborators, Manu Tamminen, a microbiology researcher at the University of Helsinki.

"Most of the amplified DNA will be from the scat microbes — or, since the sample is pretty old, any microbes that thrive in old, decomposed feces," Tamminen told Life's Little Mysteries. "Any DNA from the master himself has probably been decomposed by these bacteria already a long time ago."

Bruce A. Hyma, chief medical examiner at the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office in Miami, said that Tamminen is likely correct, noting that Burroughs' cells may have already served a more utilitarian purpose: "Since human feces contain copious bacteria, human DNA would be digested as an energy source."

This article was provided by Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.com.

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