Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tuur van Balen Tries to Get Pigeons to Defecate Soap With Aid of Special Bacteria

Photo courtesy: Tuur van Balen

Every once in a while, I run across an idea that makes me wonder what the "creator" of this epiphany was smoking just before inspiration hit. This experiment to change the diet of pigeons so they defecate soap is lunacy. And to aid him with his repurposing of pigeons, he received a grant from both the Flemish Architecture & Design Committee and Ministry of Culture which adds an air of legitimacy to an idea that I find deeply disturbing.

The pigeon is widely regarded as a scourge of the city - the rat's flying cousin, dropping poop on residents, tourists, statues and buildings. But what if that poop could be useful instead of a nuisance? In one of the stranger projects to grace our pages, a Belgian designer-cum-scientist is working on a pigeon diet that would turn the birds' feces into soap - so they clean up our cities instead of dirty them.

Tuur van Balen calls the project "Pigeon d'Or" - French for "golden pigeon." It's a two step process: 1) make pigeons poop soap. 2) Build specially designed coops to house the pigeons where they can be fed, and direct their feces onto car windshields. Understandably, the first part hasn't been easy.

Photo courtesy: Tuur van Balen

In March 2010, van Balen began working with synthetic biologist James Chappell to create a special bacteria that, when fed to pigeons, would make the birds metabolize and defecate soap. The fact that they were funded by a grant from the Flemish Architecture & Design Committee and Ministry of Culture adds credence to what seems like an idea that could easily be complete nonsense.

In an e-mail this month, van Balen wrote:
I did not manage to make pigeons defecate soap (yet). In collaboration with a scientist, I designed and created a bacteria that could theoretically produce a biological soap inside the pigeon's gut. However, taking this bacteria out of the lab and testing it on pigeons is complicated ethically and legally.

Photo courtesy: Tuur van Balen

On the project site, he notes: "the project explores the ethical, political, practical and aesthetic consequences of designing biology." He's right about that - if the project were ever successful, it would raise a lot of objections. He describes the process as "add new functionality" to the birds. What right do humans have to turn wild animals into free flying cleaners?

On the other hand, we domesticate (some say enslave) plenty of animals, often to the mutual benefit of both species. If the new diet doesn't harm the pigeon, why not turn something gross into something useful?

Either way, it's unlikely those questions will have to be answered in the near future, unless van Balen and Chappell have a real breakthrough. But you never know.

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