If you thought cloning mice, frogs and extinct mammoths to be challenging, how about cloning Vincent Van Gogh's ear? Dutch artist Diemut Strebe has grown a living replica of the ear that Vincent Van Gogh reportedly sliced off in a troubled episode, using genetic material from one of Van Gogh's direct descendants. With a lifespan of 80 years or more, the ear could live as long as any one of us, says Strebe, who is investigating the idea of replicating people from historical DNA.

"The ear is grown with Lieuwe van Gogh's cells," Strebe tells Gizmag. "By his natural relationship to Vincent, he carries in his cells the white chromosomes of Vincent and a 16th of his genome."

Strebe figured out the shape of the ear by looking at a historical photo of the artist, and extrapolated the measurements to create a 3D-printed mold that approximated its shape. A scaffold placed in the mold was seeded with Van Gogh's cells, which grew until the ear reached its final form. The result, states Strebe, is a true living piece.

"It has a metabolism," Strebe tells us. "It lives in a container, in a system which mimics our body. It has a lung, it has a heart, it has plasma and it even has oxygen exchange."

To make a system that supported the ear, she built a bioreactor that mimics the body's different parts. According to Strebe, the ear could live to be really old if it's well taken care of and given proper nutrition. To genetically engineer the ear to be as close to Vincen't Van Gogh's as possible, she collaborated with scientists at Harvard and MIT as part of a project called "Sugababe." Along with some of Van Gogh's genetic material, the ear is also made up of some genetically engineered components.

While she initially hoped to use Van Gogh's own DNA to grow the ear, that plan fell apart when donated letters that supposedly belonged to the artist (which took a year for her to source) were found to lack any trace of his DNA. Strebe next approached Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of Vincent's brother Theo Gogh, who readily donated a bit of his skin for the project. Strebe, who is currently trying to source other historical DNA to experiment with, says that the project brings up many interesting questions about human replication.

"Theoretically a historical person could be genetically created," Strebe tells us." There are many interesting questions involved about uniqueness, about the possibility to reconstruct somebody physically or how identical the result would be even if you get to that point. The questions involved are similar to those when Plutarch talked about the Ship of Thesus – whether a ship would be the same ship if all its parts were replaced?".

The living ear was exhibited recently at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany.

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