August 20, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
Eyes and organoids
I have written in the past about eyes and about organoids (but if you really want to know more about organoids, you should read Philip Ball’s How to Grow a Human). These two topics, eyes and organoids, recently came together.
A few days ago, I saw tweets like this: “Small blobs of human brain grown in a dish have been coaxed into forming rudimentary eyes, which respond to light by sending signals to the rest of the brain tissue [read more: https://buff.ly/3jZLhEl]” Or this: “Human brain organoids with a pair of pigmented eyes […] ! New protocol, @ElkeGabriel et al. Gopalakrishnan lab @UniklinikDUS. Retinol induces the formation on one pole of the organoid of 2 eye-like structures with cornea, lens & light-sensitive retina.” These tweets and others referred to an article published in Cell Stem Cell and entitled “Human brain organoids assemble functionally integrated bilateral optic vesicles”. The research was carried out in Düsseldorf, one of my former alma maters… but that’s by the by.
I became fascinated by the comments that people left underneath such tweets, especially since this advance was not really picked up by the mainstream news – understandably, given events around the world. The comments ranged from expressions of surprise and even delight, to expressions of fear and expressions of hope – mirroring, in a way, reactions to a lot of biotechnological advances in the past and probably in the future, from cloning, to stem cells, to synthetic biology to gene editing, to, indeed, organoids.
Quite a few tweets just that WOW, OMG, wild, cool etc., noting this new scientific advance with a bit of awe and wonder.
Alongside this I saw a lot of visual jokes based on googly eyes, while others looked into the eyes of this new life form and said, in a sort of pareidolic fashion, and being both fascinated and a bit shocked: “Well that is horrifying. What if it’s scared? Please take care of it.” We’ll come back to horror later on! The following tweet really spoke to me, as I had thought something quite similar when I saw the word ‘coaxed’: “Now, due to the word ‘coaxing’ I’ve got the image of scientists sitting round the brain going ‘still not grown eyes? Come on… they’re great! You’ll love them. You know you want to 🙂 go on- show us you can. It’ll be fab!’”
There were some people, such as Matthew Cobb, who said “Yikes”, and others who said “Eek”. One person even issued a Yike certificate. And as “Yikes” expresses shock and alarm, we come to the next type of reaction.
There were quite a few people who quoted an iconic saying from Jurassic Park – namely: “’… your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ ~Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park” – sometimes with links to the film clip. Some took it a step further and wrote: “This is incredibly irresponsible. We still don’t know what causes consciousness, and there’s a decent chance that thing has some fundamental awareness.” One tweet rightly talked about the context of this advance, but took the scifi scenario attached to the two-eyed-blob a bit too far, perhaps: “This is probably not the decade to be playing with that, we already have enough problems to deal with without shapeshifting sentient brain slime taking over!”
Alongside the expressions of wonder and apprehension, fear and caution, there were also tweets that expressed the hope that this advance would lead to better ways of dealing with eye diseases (including my own). I found people like me who have to care for their eyes every day and care very much about new ways of making that easier.
One tweeter simply said, slightly jokingly, “looking into these organoid eyes as potential replacements”. Another tweeted, more seriously “Wow! Where do I signup for an injection of that retinol thing to replace my rotten eyes dying of retinitis pigmentosae, blepharitis and keratite?” I can really sympathise with that guy and with this one: “I’ve permanently lost part of my vision, I’m an artist. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m going to need this kind of research to happen to keep doing what I love.”
Going a step further, from personal problems to population problems, I also read and approved of this tweet: “Imagine being able to grow brain matter that cures Alzheimer’s or dementia. Or, growing brain matter to heal people with gunshot wounds to the head. Grow a new eye for people who are blind. This is amazing technology that can help millions of people.” We are not there yet, of course. But research is advancing on various fronts.
As I said at the beginning, this scientific advance was not covered much by the mainstream news. After the press release on EurekAlert, there were articles in Science Daily, in Genetic Engineering News, in Medical Express, in New Atlas, in New Scientist, and probably some other outlets.
However, there was also an article on this in the Daily Star! It summarised the science quite well, following the lead of the press release. But it ends by quoting, like I have done above, somebody tweeting (and I had this in my corpus too!) about it and that tweet informed the headline: “Blob of human brain grows functioning eyes in lab dish sparking ‘horror’”.
The end of the article reads like this: “Reacting to the fascinating sight on Twitter, one user said: ‘New horrific state of consciousness just dropped.’ They jokingly added: ‘Scientists would coax the vat brain to form a rudimentary mouth but it would just scream… ‘Perhaps the vat brain enjoyed a blissful ignorance before the eyes. It could not comprehend anything outside itself, save for the prodding. But out of curiosity or pain or frustration, the brain just had to know what the prod was. ’Now it spends its eternity staring in horror.’”
Science and popular culture
The ‘vat brain’! Voilà. It seems that as soon as the tabloids get in on the story, popular culture, popular stories and popular stereotypes emerge quite spontaneously, like eyes on an organoid (for more on this, you can read my older post on organoids; I even used a brain in a vat as an illustration)! Not that popular culture was completely absent from the tweets, as we have seen with the reference to the ethical reflections on responsibility in science taken from Jurassic Park. Popular culture is never too far away from scientific discussions when they spill into the public sphere. In one way or another we always see science through the eyes of culture.
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