The West’s Wild Horses | Artist Explores History Of Humans Genetically Modifying Pigs

Episode 653,   Nov 23, 2023, 09:00 PM

Reporter Ashley Ahearn bought a wild horse from the federal government for $125. Also, with opera and visual art, an exhibit looks at modern genetic engineering of pigs.

The Captivating Story Of The West’s Wild Horses

Wild mustangs are an icon of the American West, conjuring a romantic vision of horses galloping free on an open prairie. But in reality, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says the sensitive Western ecosystem can’t handle the existing population of horses.

There are about 80,000 wild horses in the American West, a number that grows about 10-20% each year. The BLM says the fragile, arid rangelands the horses occupy can only support a third of that number before they overgraze habitats critical for other species. This has led to controversial roundups to get wild horses off the open range.

Science and environment reporter Ashley Ahearn dove deep into the history, symbolism, and ecological impact of the West’s mustangs for the new podcast Mustang. She even adopted a wild horse, named Boo, from the federal government for $125. Ashley speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about her boots-on-the-ground reporting, and what she learned from how tribal nations manage mustangs.

An Artist Explores The History Of Humans Genetically Modifying Pigs

Over 100,000 people are waiting for organ donations in the United States. Many will likely never receive one, since there are so few available. So scientists are turning to pigs for potential alternatives. Their organs are remarkably similar to ours, and scientists are now using CRISPR to modify pigs’ DNA to improve transplantation outcomes. But although the field has shown major advances in the last decade, the technique isn’t ready yet. Recently, a patient who received a modified pig heart died six weeks after the surgery.

Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg was intrigued by these recent advances, and looked into humanity’s history of modifying the pig over thousands of years for her new gallery exhibit, Hybrid: an Interspecies Opera. For the work, she interviewed scientists and archaeologists and even filmed in a lab that’s experimenting with genetically modifying pigs to create more human-compatible organs.

In the resulting documentary, which plays in the exhibit, the words from the scientists she interviewed are transposed into an opera composed by musician Bethany Barrett. Visitors can also find 3D-printed clay pig statues and a timeline of how humans have transformed pigs over ten millennia, thanks to selective breeding.

Dewey-Hagborg sat down with SciFri producer D. Peterschmidt to talk about how the exhibit came together, and how CRISPR could further transform pigs and our relationship to them. 

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