In the high-ceilinged basement lab, the ear lies flat, encapsulated in a dish on a sheet-metal cabinet. It’s actually a piece of apple carved to look like an ear, yet it’s not really an apple either; the cellulose has been washed of its apple cells and populated instead with human ones. They are HeLa cells, the infamously ubiquitous cultured offspring of a long-ago cervical cancer. I am looking at an ear made of cervix, held together by apple.
“Biohacking is the new gardening,” says Andrew Pelling, who leads the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa. Pelling eschews the current vogue for genetic and chemical biological manipulation, investigating instead the ways in which cells behave when their physical surroundings change.
The apple ear was created as an artistic statement, referring to a famous case of a human ear that was grafted onto a mouse’s back, and its choice of HeLa cells was intentionally provocative. But the fusion of plant and animal it represents holds promise for regenerative medicine, in which defective body parts may be replaced by engineered alternatives.