Good night, John-Boy

by Ralf Stutzki, November 12, 2020

© CBS Television Network

Last year's x-mas gift to my wife was really a huge success: I bought her the CRISPR gene editing kit "DNA Playground for the whole family" which enabled us to secretly inject the GFP-Jellifish gene into our neighbor’s 31 Koi. This led to a very favorable and warm 24/7 green color illumination of his backyard (and to a trial still pending - but that’s another story).

This year is all different. I am considering to give myself away, at least in parts. How could anyone top that?! Lab grown brains is the must-have of the moment, très chic, a perfect giveaway and ideal gift for couples who can’t get enough of each other. It is the best way to show your partner how special you are. All it takes is one of your stem cells, a petri dish and a good lawyer (the Jimmy McGill kind). Imagine this technology of recreating someone‘s brain had been available in the 1970’s when they produced my favorite US TV series "The Waltons". Instead of ending each episode with the iconic "Goodnight John-Boy. Goodnight Mary Ellen. Goodnight Jim-Bob. Goodnight Erin…" they could have alternatively ended it with "Goodnight John-Boy. Goodnight John-Boy. Goodnight John-Boy …" Wouldn’t that have been something.

Research on brain organoids is progressing fast. Scientists have already connected these crazy little somethings to walking robots, modified them with Neanderthal genes and even sent them into space aboard the ISS which was mankind's appropriate answer to Elon Musk launching a stupid car into space. About a year ago, neuroscientist Alysson Muotri and his team at the University of San Diego reported that their human brain organoids produced coordinated waves of activity,1 which actually is a lot more than my brain has been producing lately. Muotri's findings that the consciousness of his lab offspring was comparable to that of premature babies immediately raised philosophical concerns of whether "conscious" organoids require special treatment and perhaps even rights.2 The spectrum that would need to be discussed here obviously is very broad indeed, ranging from the cerebral organoid’s right to have a personal gut feeling, all the way up to same cell marriage. Will these miniature organs with their strive for self-realization need special juridical protection? If so: the laws of which nation will have to be applied? The country in which the research is performed or the nation that produced the Petri dish to which the brain organoids were "born"? It’s definitely time for us to hire more ethicists.

Another lovely brain-without-a-body-breakthrough story has been reported in New Haven, Connecticut where a research team at Yale university has recently "partially restored life to pigs"2 that had been killed just moments earlier.3 Apparently the scientists had removed the brain from the skull, injected some chemicals and then were surprised to see that the pig brain mildly returned to the world of Shakespeare and telenovelas. I wonder what could possibly be the first pig-thought that comes up in such a situation? "Gosh, where is the rest of me?!" Hard to tell. And then: why would anyone kill an animal for the sake of bringing it back to life? Assuming that the pigs had not died in a car accident while driving under the influence: who did the killing? The butcherer across the street who is co-author of the "local welfare labelling act for pigs"?

Alas, lots of questions remain unanswered as scientific research proceeds at high pace and while we all are searching for the perfect Christmas gift. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for brains without a body. It’s much better than the other way around. And as I have already said: it is truly the best way to show your loved one just how special you are.

Ralf Stutzki


[1] Trujillo, C.A. et al. Cell Stem Cell 2019, 25, 558–569, doi: 10.1016/j.stem.2019.08.002

[2] Reardon, S. "Can lab grown brains become conscious?" Nature News Feature 2020, doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02986-y

[3] Vrselja, Z. et al. Nature 2019, 568, 336–343, doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1099-1

Ralf Stutzki, Head Ethics