• How to Build a Pig-Duck: The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Guide to Hybrids, Chimeras, and Synthetic Biology

    by  • December 10, 2018 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    An essay by S. M. Plathock, as provided by Rachel Rodman
    Art provided by Leigh Legler


    For you, nature isn’t enough.

    When you go outdoors and see something beautiful–a deer, say, backgrounded by trees–you feel all the normal stuff: awe, wonder, majesty, and blah, blah, blah.

    But beneath that, not too far below the surface, you’re bored. BORED. Haven’t you already seen a deer? And haven’t you already seen a tree? And hasn’t everybody?

    And beneath that, even stronger, is a need. A need to fuse and mash and link and blend and mix and change things.

    Wouldn’t that deer be less boring, you wonder, if it were part shark? And wouldn’t those trees make you want to stab your eyes out, for sheer monotony, just a little bit less, if they were part Venus flytrap?

    The answer to both these questions is, of course, “Yes.” Or possibly: “Hell, yes.” Or even: “Abso-friggin-lutely.”

    You know it; I know it … even if not everyone else agrees. Even if your life, like mine, is full of negative, unhelpful people–your ex, your therapist, your parole officer, and so on–who don’t totally get it.

    In this book, you will learn many wonderful and useful things:

    • How to swap organs and tissues and chromosomes and genes.
    • How to chop up different embryos into a cellular confetti, and then toss the pieces together again, to make fun new swirls.
    • How to play “Trade you!” with eggs and sperm and fetuses and syringes full of blood.
    • How to sew different bodies together, stitch by stitch, to make creatures with two heads.[1]

    But, of all the spectacular and important lessons that are packed into this book, over the course of 12 chapters, the most important is this:

    You shouldn’t listen to those people.

    Let me say that again, in case it didn’t quite sink in:

    You shouldn’t listen to those people.

    Your dissatisfaction with nature is a deep and important part of you. And it is nothing to be ashamed of.

    More to the point–and take it from someone who has tried–you couldn’t possibly stifle it, even if you wanted to.

    This need will follow you everywhere. Into the pet store, in the form of a deep frustration, when you’re confronted with tank after tank of goldfish, and cage after cage of hamsters–but not a single goldfish-hamster, not one.

    And into the florist’s shop, where you’ll bitterly remember what Shakespeare almost said, but didn’t quite: that a rose, by any other name, would be just as tragically predictable and totally, totally stupid.

    And onto the street corner, too, as a crushing despair, when you catch sight of some tedious little dog, trotting on a leash, something that hasn’t been mashed together with a squirrel or a cow, or a palm tree, or something to break up the awful sameness.

    This is who you are. This is what you feel.

    Nature is not enough for you.

    And since nature, left to its own devices, is never going to volunteer to make the kinds of extreme changes that would be required to please you, a question–and a responsibility–falls to you.

    What are you going to do about it?

    “Nothing will come of nothing,” the king warns his daughter in the first scene of King Lear. And how prophetic that turns out to be. Because, after a whole play, spent doing nothing, Cordelia ends up with nothing: no sheep-goats, no turtle-ducks, no potato-tomato plants, and no manta ray-chickens.

    And then, at the end of play, she dies.

    It is too late for Cordelia. But, from her tragedy, a lesson may be taken:

    Do something.

    Cut and paste. Mix and match. Fuse and blend. Mash and mash and mash, vigorously, until, from your mashing, something new and unprecedented has emerged. A creature of your own design, glorious in its unnaturalness, of which you can state, with quiet pride, “I made this.”

    “But I can’t!” you are possibly protesting, so traumatized by years of disappointment that you have become reluctant even to hope. “I don’t know how!”

    You can’t? Really?

    My friend, that’s what Cordelia said. And Cordelia might even have had something of an excuse.

    But your situation is different. Because you have at least two things–two profound advantages–that Cordelia didn’t.

    First: you live in the 21st century. At your disposal is the modern laboratory: a wonderful and glittering place, whose nooks and crannies, freezers and benchtops, are stocked with a profusion of clever tools, exquisitely suited to the mashing together of different forms of life.

    A second and equally important difference is this:

    You have this book.

    This book is designed for you. The eager you, the deserving you. The you for whom it is time.

    Don’t have any scientific background?

    No problem.

    This book gives you everything you need. All the Whats, all the Hows, and all the history, too: carefully curated to include only what’s relevant and colorful and edge-of-your-seat engrossing, with all the boring bits left out.

    Beyond all the facts and methods, this book will also teach you how to strategize. To understand, for example, that the methods appropriate to mashing together highly similar organisms, like horses and zebras, will be rather different than the methods suited to mashing together more distantly related organisms, like naked mole rats and Saguaro cacti. And to understand too, that, in some parts of the body, like inside a mature organ, nature is really sensitive to differences between species. So you’ll have to proceed with caution. But, in other places, like some out-of-the-way corner of Chromosome 3, nature scarcely cares at all, and you can do pretty much whatever you want.

    By the end of this book–and here’s the payoff–you’ll be able to think like a Master. And you’ll have not just the tools, but also the instincts to force together distinct–and very distinct–forms of life, just like a first-class professional.

    Sound amazing?


    To have a coach, standing in your corner? Instructing you step by step?

    Picking you back up again when you’re feeling discouraged? When your first try–and your second try, too–dies on the operating table?

    Helping you to troubleshoot–or to switch things up–if your present approach isn’t working?

    Chewing you out when you’re being lazy, or are tempted to give up?

    And always, always, rooting for you?

    If you like the sound of that–and we both know that you do–then let’s get started.

    Here’s how this will go.

    In Chapter 1, we’ll exploit the power of sex, to create half-and-half creatures, called hybrids.

    Then, in Chapter 2, we’ll build Russian doll combinations, by placing embryos from one species inside the uterus of another. In Chapter 3, we’ll swirl together bits and pieces of different embryos, and use them to grow up living quilts, called chimeras. In Chapters 4 and 5, we’ll head to the operating room, in order to sew whole bodies together, and to transplant organs and blood. In Chapter 6, we’ll perform equally dramatic surgeries on plants. Then, in Chapters 7-9, we’ll jump down a level in scale and mash and swirl and stitch at the level of the cell.

    In Chapter 10, finally, we’ll speak the language of life, in As, Cs, Ts, and Gs, and generate mix-and-match creatures from the ground up, starting from DNA.

    Chapter 11 is a summary chapter. Here, we’ll review your options, setting all of the available methods together, side by side, in a series of user-friendly charts, so that you can craft a detailed plan, best suited to that special interspecies combination you’ve long fantasized about.

    Chapter 11 will serve, too, as a final, motivating kick in the head, to get you out there, doing it, up to your elbows in cells and chromosomes and guts, building weird and wonderful and extraordinary things.

    Living the dream, that is, instead of being imprisoned by it.

    Some books only take it up to 11. But for some things–and mash-ups is definitely one of those things–what you really crave is an extra setting, an additional notch on the scale, to which you can flick the knob, in order to take everything up one click farther.

    So, in this book, we take it up to 12. And, in Chapter 12, you’ll be challenged to think even bigger. To take a good hard look, that is, at the dream that might have initially brought you to the book, and ask yourself, honestly: Couldn’t I make something that’s even more spectacular?

    In particular: if I were to shove even more species, like, way, way more, into my old blueprint; if I were to use lots of mash-up techniques simultaneously–as many, maybe, as I possibly could–couldn’t I make something truly mind-blowing? Something that might qualify–and why not?–as the most amazing creature that ever existed?

    And why didn’t I start yesterday?

    So: that’s the book. The 12 chapters, all excellent, which lie ahead of you:

    1. Eggs and Sperm
    2. Fun with Fetuses
    3. Living Quilts
    4. Two Heads, Two Bodies
    5. Blood … Organs … Action!
      Transplants and Transfusions
    6. Frankenstein’s Treehouse
      Plant Grafting
    7. Doing It in a Dish
      Cell Fusion
    8. This Is Your Nucleus. This Is Your Nucleus Transplanted Into a Baboon Cytoplasm. Any Questions?
    9. ‘Cause Your Friend is My Friend
      Symbionts, Parasites, and How to Share Them
    10. Splice! You’re It!
      Gene Insertion
    11. Onward, Mash-Up Soldiers!
      Let’s Make A Plan
    12. Two Species Good, Four Species Better
      How to Dream Even Bigger

    And we’re almost ready to go.

    But, before we take off, let me be absolutely clear about one thing:

    This isn’t going to be easy.

    You’re going to struggle; you’re going to get frustrated. You’ll be forced to revise your initial blueprint, too, probably pretty substantially.

    That’s science.

    But the alternative–and you know this, because you’ve already lived it–would just be so much harder.

    Listen. Could you really–possibly–go back to your gray, limited life? Could you do that at this point, now that you’ve read so far, and you know how much better it could be, if you only decided to make it so?

    Try it.

    Go ahead, I defy you. Shut this book, return home. And, once there, try to make do, won’t you, with fairy stories about mermaids and unicorns. And with your antidepressant medication.

    Art for "How to Build a Pig-Duck"

    So, make the leap. For the love of Pig-Ducks, just make the leap.

    Dear Not-My-Reader, I wish you all the best with that.

    But, for the rest of you?

    The only way forward is forward.

    Because, look: this is about more than just mash-ups.

    Isn’t it?

    To an almost equal extent, it’s also about Identity. Your Identity. About becoming the person you always have been, somewhere beneath the surface.

    You: the Doer. You: the Fuser. You: the Power-to-be-Reckoned-with.

    And, until you stand up and lay claim to that identity, you are never going to be complete. Until it’s you, hip deep in genes and gore, until it’s you, shoving together old forms of life, to generate dazzling new hyphenated creatures: bat-seals and chicken-tobacco; mouse-rats and llama-salamanders; squid-crabs and banana-algae, you are never ever ever ever going to experience real happiness.


    So, make the leap. For the love of Pig-Ducks, just make the leap.

    And, whatever it is that is holding you back, right at this moment: the thrall of the familiar, the fear of others’ opinions, the fear, more probably, of success–that perverse instinct, which causes you to pull back, sometimes, at the very moment when you see your dream, lying there, ahead of you, glittering and near and possible and imminent, and you know that you are about to get exactly what you want?

    Just let it go.

    And, instead, lift your hand, in whatever state that it is in–whether sure and steady, or madly trembling–and place it on the rightmost edge of this page.

    My hand is already there.

    Because your dream is my dream. Because my book is your book.

    And together–together–let’s turn the page.


    [1] And so much more!

    S. M. Plathock stars in the documentary Nobody Puts the Great Pacific Octopus in the Corner (2013), which details her efforts to surgically suture herself to a giant mollusk; she is also the author of the philosophy treatise “Notes Towards an Überorganism” (2015), which promotes the compression of all of biodiversity into a single furry/scaled/ciliated whole.

    A passionate proponent of interspecies surrogacy, Plathock is also excited to announce–as of Monday: pregnancy test positive!–that she is presently serving as prenatal host to a set of triplets: 1 desert hedgehog, 1 ring-tailed lemur, and 1 long-haired Persian kitten.

    Rachel Rodman (www.rachelrodman.com) is a writer and a former scientist.

    Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.

    “How to Build a Pig-Duck: The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Guide to Hybrids, Chimeras, and Synthetic Biology” is © 2018 Rachel Rodman
    Art accompanying story is © 2018 Leigh Legler

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