Breeding, domestication and the essence of culture


The very essence of culture can be found in its etymological origins (“to grow”). We rarely think about it, but we come in contact with some of the oldest artifacts of early human activity every day through the food that we eat (domesticated and bred animals and plants) and the pets that we keep. Genetic changes through domestication of the dog from wild wolves is estimated to have originated sometime around 20,000-40,000 BCE [1], which is the approximate age range of the oldest artistic artifacts that have been found, like abstract drawings and cave paintings [2], [3], bone flutes [4] and Venus figurines [5]. An obvious difference between breeding and other kinds of art where the results often are immediate, is that the visible results from breeding typically only become apparent much later in the process. Domestication of crops happened much later (~12.000 BCE) [6], but since plants generally tolerate more extreme breeding methods and have shorter generation times (generations is a more appropriate time measure than calendar years in evolution), the genetic changes through domestication of plants is at least as advanced as those for domesticated animals. Domestication is also not a process that only happened long ago. For example, the Swedish spruce breeding project got initiated more than 150 years ago, and they are now at their second generation bred material with an estimated 10-25% yield increase [7], which demonstrates that breeding projects often have to be viewed not as the work of a single individual but as a process spanning multiple generations of breeders.Old land races which can be found in seed banks in museums also give us a historical record which not only tells us about the breeding history, but also other interesting historical facts about local needs and preferences [8-9].


Despite human kind’s long experiences of breeding, it was not until the 1860s that the laws of inheritance were systematically studied by the monk Gregor Mendel [10]. In many ways, his observation and fascination inheritance of smooth and wrinkled peas could be seen as an artistic curiosity that upon systematic observations turned into a scientific study. What distinguishes “artistic research” from scientific research is as such not easily defined [11], but artistic thinking can be wider in scope and include aspects typically not considered in purely scientific studies.Artistic thinking can thereby also serve as a more indirect source of scientific inspiration. As a testament of breeding as an art form, one can only look at the phenotypic (morphotype) diversity within species that have undergone systematic and creative breeding for utility or aesthetic preferences, for example Canis lupus (wolf and dog) [12-13], Brassica rapa (cabbage, brussels sprout, turnip, …) [14] or Rosa spp.(roses) [15].


The plant-human interaction is also in itself an interesting field of artistic research [16]. A seemingly wild environment, like a forest or individual trees, can also offer aesthetic qualities not only visually, but also through other senses [17-20]. Not only plants, but entire landscapes can also be seen as art installations, as demonstrated by land artists like Alan Sonfist. This view of living matter like plants either individually or collectively in a landscape or ecosystem ties nicely into the so-called “land art” movement. From another perspective, some conservation ("rewilding") biology efforts like the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive ( are arguably inspired by the aesthetic value of the immense redwood trees, and they are also introducing those trees to areas where they do not grow naturally which introducing an anthropogenic component. The anthropogenic influence on nature is in itself an almost baroque aesthetic quality of the contrast. For example, some historical naturalist artists like John Constable required signs of human influence for inspiration in their art. An interesting contrast when breeding and introducing new and alien species into an area is the challenge of a common will to preserve the “natural” in land art.


Arts and life sciences


Arts and different types of sciences will often disagree on how credits are given, which can complicate interdisciplinary collaborations [21]. Intellectual disciplines can be seen as belonging to “three cultures” [22]: natural sciences (including mathematics and engineering), political sciences and humanities (including arts). Despite the apparent difference in nature between the natural sciences and the arts, both have a long history of mutual benefit. There are for example successful interdisciplinary collaborations where breeding has been explored as both art and science. One such example is the Cosmopolitan Chicken project [23] by the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen (, which evolved into the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research project ( in collaboration with scientists from Leuven university [24]. Certain forms of arts have also been invaluable for scientific study through the ages. The field of botanical art and other similar artistic illustration techniques in anatomy [25], paleontology and other fields fill a critical role since the artistic illustration of the “idea” of for example a flower often can be much more illustrative than a photography [26-27]. On the other hand is also the field of photography and by extension advanced imaging techniques critical in scientific study [28-29].


Artistic expression through breeding, mutagenesis, transgenesis or chimeras


The rules and regulations surrounding biosafety issues for genetic engineering makes do-it-yourself (DIY) “biohacking” projects using transgenic methods difficult. These rules and regulations essentially killed the kickstarter-funded “artistic science” Glowing Plant ( project [30], since the project had to resort to less efficient transformation methods in order to comply with environmental regulations. Commercial fantastic aesthetic applications of genetic engineering are however viable in some markets, for example the creation of the mythological blue rose [31], [32]. There are also some examples of purely artistic use of transgenic methods, for example the green fluorescent rabbit Alba by the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac [33]. The intersection of transgenic methods and arts have inspired the establishment of the “vivoarts” school [34], which explores the nature of life and how ways to alter it can be used artistically but also the use of arts for non-humans. This amateur involvement in life sciences also ties nicely together with the so-called citizen science movement [35] and the “biohacking” maker movement [36].


So is genetic engineering a replacement for traditional breeding? Not always. Transgenic methods should rather be seen as a complementary tool to breeding. If the trait of interest is regulated by a single gene or a few genes,which do not need to be tightly controlled by environmental cues, transgenic methods are often superior. Many traits are however complex and regulated by many different genes that all need to be synchronized and controlled individually. In such cases (if the natural variation among sexually compatible species can provide access to the trait of interest), traditional breeding is the superior method.


For artistic reasons, it is however not always needed to alter the genome by mutagenesis, transgenesis or breeding. One alternative is to use ancient technologies to create plant chimeras using grafting, like the spectacular trees of 40 fruits from the American artist Sam van Aken ( As with grafting, breeding can also be done by low-tech tools which means that access to this kind of “biohacking” is open to a broader public without access to advanced laboratories.



Plants challenging the species concept

The species concept is not as clear-cut in plants as it is in animals with frequent interspecific hybridization. It is important to remember that categorizations of biological life into species, genera etc is a constructed concept, where the borders between the categories are fuzzier and less absolute than often assumed. Gene flow between species can be controlled by so-called prezygotic and postzygotic reproductive barriers.

An example of a prezygotic reproductive barrier could be that while being the same species (basically a weird-looking wolf), a Great Dane will not be able to mate with a Chihuahua simply due to their size differences. This prezygotic barrier could most likely easily be overcome through artificial insemination from a Chihuahua male to a Great Dane female, and the offspring could be bred further.

A classical example of postzygotic reproductive barriers is the sterility of the offspring (mule, hinny) between a horse an a donkey, which inhibits further breeding of the hybrid. More severe prezygotic or postzygotic barriers cause failure of fertilization or spontaneous abortion. Plants, on the other hand, can often breed across species barriers and sometimes even across genera [37-39]. There are also several manipulation techniques where post-zygotic hybridization barriers in plants can be overcome – for example through embryo rescue where embryos that otherwise would be aborted before the seed is mature can be grown in a petri dish using a growth media supplemented with nutrients and hormones [40]. This natural gene flow between distantly related species through cross breeding is challenging our classical categorizations into nice hierarchies of species and genera.





   - Breeding, domestication and the essence of culture

   - Arts and life sciences

   - Artistic expression through breeding, mutagenesis,
     transgenesis or chimeras

   - Plants challenging the species concept

 The Bifrost Eucalyptus project

   - Research, context and planning

   - Aims

   - Copyright and participatory development

   - Planned Execution phase 1 : cheating Heimdall

   - Planned Execution phase 2a : Cold-hardy rainbow gum –
     a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

   - Planned Execution phase 2b : Advanced intercross
     breeding and selection – finding offspring superior
     to the parents through transgressive segregation?

   - Planned Execution phase 2c : Rainbow-colored
     cider gum – an appropriately sized and attractive
     garden ornament?

   - Current status

   - Future perspectives and physical expositions

   Bibliography (new window for easy look up while reading)

   Supplemental information