Christopher Kemp

The Frozen Great Beyond

When Robert Ettinger froze his mother's body in 1977, she became the Cryonics Institute's first customer. Last year he froze his wife too, cooling her body to minus 196 degrees Celsius and storing it in an insulated tank of liquid nitrogen. For $35,000 Ettinger and his attentive staff will provide the same service for anyone.

"Dead people don't have much fun," says Ettinger, the 82-year-old founder of the Cryonics Institute. "It's not a question of whether you're happy now," he says. "I think in the future it's going to be better, not worse."

Twenty miles northeast of Detroit, the institute sits atop a small patch of grass, backed by a screen of trees, squat and unremarkable. Few would guess from its drab exterior that it houses the bodies of 38 customers frozen and suspended in liquid nitrogen. Even fewer would guess that seven dogs and nine cats, equally frozen, are keeping them company. But since opening the institute almost 25 years ago, Ettinger has seen membership grow steadily, and his team is performing more suspensions now than at any other time.

"In recent years we've been getting maybe three or four a year, I guess," he says. Ettinger, like his patients and their pets, is waiting for the day they can all be revived.

In much the same way as drowning patients can be resuscitated after long periods without breathing, Ettinger believes researchers will find a way to reverse the tissue damage that accompanies long-term freezing, allowing his customers to be resuscitated too. Until then, their bodies will remain submerged, or "suspended," in liquid nitrogen, in vast containers called cryostats, the largest of which is capable of storing up to 16 bodies at once.

With an eye toward the future, the folks at the institute are aware that the bodies they freeze must be in the best shape possible. In other words, they must be fresh and, to minimize tissue breakdown, the initial phases of suspension must be performed in the minutes immediately after a patient is declared dead. "We can have people on the spot if we know ahead of time," Ettinger says. The sooner after death the process is begun, the more likely it is to be successful, he says. When his wife died last year, technicians were standing by to begin her suspension immediately.

"There were only seconds lost," he says.

Immediately after death, a flurry of activity begins as technicians rush to prepare the patient's body for cooling and suspension. The body is stripped of any clothing and an anticoagulant solution is injected via either the femoral or the carotid artery. Pumped around the patient's circulatory system, this solution prevents the blood from clotting and causing ischemic tissue damage. Technicians cool the body with cold packs while transporting it to the institute's fully equipped laboratories. Blood pressure and acidity are measured constantly, while a device for heart/lung resuscitation maintains vascular flow, pushing anticoagulant around the body, looping through arteries, veins and capillaries to permeate the brain.

Once body temperature is stabilized at 16 degrees Celsius, the patient's blood is thoroughly washed out with buffered physiological saline, which also contains mannitol to prevent fluid migration from the rapidly cooling cells. Finally, after the patient's blood is removed and disposed of, the body is suffused with a glycerine-based cryoprotectant solution that protects the tissues from freezing damage, and then it is slowly cooled again using cold carbon dioxide vapors. After it reaches dry ice temperatures, the body is cooled further to minus 196 degrees Celsius, which arrests further degradation or decomposition.

According to the Cryonics Institute Web site: "With a patient of ordinary size, we have been taking about a week to cool down to dry ice temperature (minus 79 degrees Celsius or minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit) and another week to get down to liquid nitrogen temperature (minus 196 degrees Celsius or minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit)."

After placing patients in cryostats, staff at the institute will care for them indefinitely. "They're simply maintained in liquid nitrogen," Ettinger says. "All that means is topping off the liquid nitrogen from time to time. We check them every day."

Cool a body too quickly and it will crack; cool it too slowly and digestive enzymes in the cells will have time to begin breaking down the surrounding tissue. If cells are allowed to rupture, or swelling is not prevented, fluid migrating from within the cells to the spaces between them will expand on freezing, causing further damage. Either way, the result is extensive damage and, until this can be reversed, the bodies will remain in cryostasis under Ettinger's watchful eye.

Injury to cells is not as severe as critics make out, Ettinger says, and many tissues, including human embryos, sperm, skin and bone marrow have been frozen in liquid nitrogen and have recovered when thawed. "There can be cellular damage," Ettinger concedes, "but the most important damage probably is in the connections between cells, particularly the neurons."

In the future, according to cryonicists like Ettinger, scientists will create tiny machines capable of trundling through the body to repair damaged cells molecule by molecule, and atom by atom, until proper function is restored.

"We haven't tried to revive anyone yet because we're nowhere near that capability," he says. Meanwhile, the number of patients in long-term cryostasis increases yearly at the institute. "There is an extremely slim chance the anti-aging breakthrough will come in time for me," Ettinger says. But resuscitation of patients will come sooner rather than later, he says.

"I guess the most common conjectures are anywhere between 50 and 200 years," he says.

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"I grew up in the '20s," Ettinger recalls. "I just grew up taking it for granted that we would learn how to cure old age." He first became interested in cryonics as a way of achieving this in 1931, after reading a story called "The Jameson Satellite" in a pulp fiction magazine. In the story, Jameson, a professor, has his body placed in a satellite and sent into Earth's orbit, where it remains for millions of years until it is discovered by aliens and resuscitated. Inspired by the story, Ettinger was determined to make cryonics a reality.

In the late 1940s, Ettinger learned of French scientist Jean Rostand's success in freezing and thawing frog sperm in glycerol without affecting its ability to fertilize eggs. To Ettinger, who spent the next decade obtaining master's degrees in mathematics and physics, Rostand's work was a sign that the same might be possible in humans. By 1960, with his mother still enjoying good health, Ettinger decided it was time to introduce a larger audience to cryonics.

"I wasn't trained in biology and I wasn't a celebrity of any kind and there was no reason to think people would be interested in what I had to say," he says. Instead he tried to drum up interest by selecting "a couple of hundred" celebrities from "Who's Who in America" and writing to them, outlining his theories. The outcome was disappointing, Ettinger says matter-of-factly.

"It received a meager response and I realized it had to be a book-length exposition," he says.

The result was Ettinger's first book, "The Prospect of Immortality," which he published on his own in 1962 and distributed to friends and scientists. Two years later, the book was picked up by a major publishing house and quickly became a seminal text, the book that launched the cryonics movement.

In 1967, as a result of Ettinger's book, psychology professor James Bedford became the first patient to undergo cryonic suspension. Meanwhile, Ettinger was busy forming the Cryonic Society of Michigan, which became the Cryonics Association, which became the Immortalist Society, which formed the Cryonics Institute, which was incorporated in 1976. Ettinger performed his first cryosuspension a year later, on his mother. Ten years after his inaugural suspension, he placed his first wife in cryostasis, and just last year, his second wife joined them.

As a result of Ettinger's proselytizing, the Cryonics Institute is not the only company now offering cryonic suspension services. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is another. When potential customers call Alcor's toll-free phone number, they are greeted by the following message: "Yes, yes, yes operator, collect calls are accepted. This is the Alcor emergency line; please use this line only in the event that an Alcor member is dying or has died. Please stay on the line, this call is being recorded. Our regular business number is (480) 905-1906, to repeat (480) 905-1906; however, if this is an emergency, continue to hold. DO NOT HANG UP."

Seconds later, a phone rings and someone answers expectantly, finger hovering over a bank of buttons, ready to dispatch a team of trained technicians anywhere in the country to begin an ailing member's suspension.

Essentially, Alcor offers services similar to those of the Cryonics Institute, but with a whole-body suspension costing around $120,000, its prices are significantly higher than Ettinger's fee of $35,000. "There's nothing wrong with Alcor," Ettinger says. "They're much more expensive and we think that some of the things they do are unnecessary."

Alcor is not as forthcoming as Ettinger, either, charging journalists $2,000 for access to its facilities and asking that they sign a media agreement before granting interviews. Among other things, the agreement requires that corpses at the facility not be referred to as "corpses" but rather "patients" or "Alcor members." Similar terms like "stiff" or "carcass" or "cadaver" are also unacceptable.

Unlike the Cryonics Institute, Alcor also offers members the option of neurosuspension, or preservation of the head only. After the cryoprotectant suffusion, the head is surgically removed and stored in liquid nitrogen and the rest of the body is buried or cremated. Long-term storage of a head costs $50,000. Although that's significantly less than Alcor's whole-body suspension, the customer is left with the task of trying to find a donor body if resuscitation ever becomes possible.

In a 1992 paper, Dr. Ralph Merkle, a member of Alcor's board of directors, wrote: "In principle we need only repair the frozen brain, for the brain is the most critical and important structure in the body. Other parts of the body can simply be replaced; or, if we wished, the methods employed for the brain could be extended in the obvious way." In other words, the technology used to repair the brain could be applied to the whole body, at a much higher cost.

The Cryonics Institute has never offered neurosuspensions. Companies that offer them are not helping the cryonics movement gain acceptance, Ettinger says. "The people that do that, they keep the head and sometimes only the brain," he says. "We think it's a public relations negative, and the primary advantage is cost cutting." The cost of a whole-body suspension at the Cryonics Institute is already low, Ettinger says, sounding like a used-car salesman. And he's right: With Alcor asking for $120,000 per whole-body suspension and Trans Time Inc. and the American Cryonics Society, both in California, charging $150,000 and $135,000 respectively, there is little competition in the area of affordability.

Only time will tell if Ettinger is right or wrong about cryonics. If he's right, he will be heralded as a true scientific visionary; if he's wrong, his customers will have lost nothing more than they were willing to pay for their peace of mind. Not content to rest on his laurels, Ettinger will continue to suspend patients and expects to attract criticism for doing so. He is unapologetic; he has a business to run and customers to care for. And he will do so until he dies, becoming just another patient as the race begins to cool his body in time and place it in a cryostat beside his mother and his two wives.

Christopher Kemp is a writer in Cincinnati.

When Cramped Planes Kill

In the interests of intrepid reporting, I'm writing this dispatch from seat 17E of a commercial aircraft, cruising at 36,000 feet somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean. I haven't moved from my seat since we passed Iceland almost four hours ago. Oh, and I'm drunk too.

My current location and behavior put me at risk of developing a potentially fatal deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or blood clot.

Otherwise known as economy-class syndrome or traveler's thrombosis, DVT is currently big news in Europe where it recently has been blamed for the deaths of several passengers following long-haul flights. Experts say clots often form in the legs because of cramped seating conditions and become fatal if they move to vital organs such as the heart, brain or lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, pain, swelling, and warmth.

As the number of daily aircraft flights rapidly increases, so does the prevalence of DVT. In the past eight years, doctors at Tokyo International airport have seen a total of 25 passengers die from blood clots and, each year, they treat almost 150 passengers for DVT symptoms. In a recent Reuters news report, an Australian surgeon estimated that as many as 400 airline passengers arrive annually at Sydney airport requiring treatment for DVTs and, currently, over 800 Australians are attempting to bring legal action against 20 global airlines for not informing them about the condition and how best to avoid it.

According to other reports, 70 percent of DVT cases are among economy-class passengers, 25 percent are in business-class travelers and only five percent are found in first-class passengers. But, despite attempts by the mainstream media to make DVTs a socio-political issue, by linking it to cheaper seats with less legroom, all passengers are at an equal risk of developing blood clots. The percentage breakdown of cases, showing fewer cases occurring in first-class than economy class, is more a reflection of the number of passengers in each section of the aircraft than a comment on the cause of DVT.

It's just more satisfying when someone from first-class bites the big one and sprays the ergonomically contoured upholstery of their seat with caviar and chilled Chardonnay, right comrades? But seriously.

Victims of DVT, so far, have included commercial and military pilots, Olympic athletes traveling to Australia for competition and even a Vice President, bumbling idiot Dan Quayle, who received treatment for blood clots in 1994.

Those most at risk include pregnant women, women taking birth-control pills or hormone-replacement therapy, individuals who have recently undergone leg or pelvic surgery, people with varicose veins or leg injuries, individuals with a genetic predisposition towards developing leg clots, cancer patients, tall people, elderly people, overweight people, and smokers.

In other words, probably you or someone you know.

And the risk of developing DVT also is dramatically increased with alcohol consumption, decreased mobility and dehydration caused by pressurized aircraft cabins. Researchers have found that sitting still for as little as four hours causes a significant amount of blood to pool in the legs, increasing the chances of developing a clot there.

In other words, absolutely everybody.

In a 1999 study published in the journal VASA, investigators looking at 19 cases of DVT found that almost all of the patients had been drinking alcohol and had not been actively moving their legs during their flights.

In another study, published in Aviation, Space & Environmental Medicine, researchers found that 33 of 134 patients treated for DVT had traveled non-stop by aircraft for four hours or more within 31 days prior to treatment. In other words, you're chances of developing a DVT and keeling over at the baggage carousel, sombrero tumbling poignantly to the floor, are much higher than your chances of contracting Mediterranean Spotted Fever or Von Hippel Lindau Disease.

In response to public concern, British Airways announced January 9, it would be providing information when issuing airline tickets to help passengers take precautions against DVT. Those traveling on long-haul flights should refrain from drinking, or sitting cross-legged during long-haul flights and should wear loose-fitting clothing and book an exit-row, bulkhead or aisle seat where possible. Passengers should also walk around the cabin once an hour to prevent pooling of blood in the deep veins of the legs. If this is not possible, leg exercises can be performed and DVT prevented by mimicking the action of depressing an accelerator pedal 20 times at one-hour intervals. Those particularly at risk should contact a doctor who might advise them to take an aspirin before flying to thin the blood a little and lessen the chances of clot formation. More recently, Thai airlines announced plans January 25, to provide free treatment to passengers suffering DVT if they agree to participate in a government study of the condition.

But as yet, airlines still have no plans to inform passengers of how to avoid Mediterranean Spotted Fever or Von Hippel Lindau Disease, which in my opinion, is just irresponsible. It's just another example of profiteering without a conscience, if you ask me. And if you've seen the damage a bout of Mediterranean Spotted Fever can do to a family you'll agree with me too.

Anyway, it's time for another round of my hourly exercises. But I might as well finish my drink first, I mean, there's no point wasting it, right?

No New Tricks

Another year in science and technology has passed and there are still no flying cars. There are no three-course meals in easy-to-swallow pill form, no two-hour trans-Atlantic flights, and we still can't breathe underwater.

Among our many illustrious achievements we can count the wheel, the telephone, antibiotics, and the internal combustion engine. We consider ourselves the most intelligent, successful and well-adapted species on the planet. But just how far have we come in the estimated 52,000 years since early man migrated from Africa, and colonized the rest of the world? Actually, not so far.

We still visit the dentist regularly, broken bones still take six weeks to heal, and, in the United States, the average lifespan for a male is still only about 75 years. In China, it's only about 68 years. In Tanzania, it's 42 years.

With the onset of old age, comes memory-loss, wasting, impotence and general infirmity. And there is no cure. Likewise, there is still no cure for AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury or the common cold. And in places like Tanzania, there is still no cure for cholera, dysentery, anthrax, or polio either.

We still don't understand the mechanisms that control learning, consciousness, laughter, sleep, or memory. And we still don't understand why some people decide to kill other people. But according to the National Clearing House for Alcohol and Drug Information, alcohol is a key factor in 68% of manslaughters, 62% of assaults, 54% of murders and attempted murders. In 1997 there were over 18,000 homicides in the United States.

The death penalty is still not a deterrent.

Nor was Prohibition.

Crops still fail, rivers still flood their banks, and we're still no better at anticipating earthquakes or volcanic eruptions than the people of Pompeii, reduced to statues and buried in ash by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

According to a report by the Cremation Association of North America, over 2,345,000 people died in the United States in 1999. Almost 600,000 of them were cremated. That's about 25 percent. The rest were put in the ground. Or maybe buried at sea.

Burial at sea must comply with the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40, Volume 17, Parts 190-259, Revised as of July 1, 1999 which states: "Burial at sea of human remains which are not cremated shall take place no closer than 3 nautical miles from land and in water no less than one hundred fathoms (six hundred feet) deep and in no less than three hundred fathoms (eighteen hundred feet) from (i) 27 deg.30'00" to 31 deg.00'00" North Latitude off St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral, Florida; (ii) 82 deg.20'00" to 84 deg.00'00" West Longitude off Dry Tortugas, Florida; and (iii) 87 deg.15'00" to 89 deg.50'00" West Longitude off the Mississippi River Delta, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Florida. All necessary measures shall be taken to ensure that the remains sink to the bottom rapidly and permanently."

So, there are rules to follow. Even in death.

Evolution hasn't given us gills, webbed toes, night-vision, telepathic powers, or peaceful dispositions. Men haven't given birth, or been shrunk to the size of a pea, developed cars that use water for fuel or mined the Moon's valuable resources.

There haven't been any meteors, plagues or alien invasions of Earth-threatening proportions, which is fortunate because we still haven't developed any measures to protect ourselves against them if there are.

Light still travels at 186,000 miles per second, sound still travels at about 344 meters per second and neither is going to speed up or slow down any time soon.

The planet Earth is still 40,077 kilometers in circumference and 12,756 kilometers in diameter; it still orbits the sun every 365.26 days and revolves on its axis every 23.93 hours. Over seven tenths of its surface are still covered with water. Its temperature range is 136ºF to --128ºF. It is now home to over 6 billion people. It is still the third planet from the sun in a solar system found in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. There are billions of similar galaxies in the Universe that also could also potentially contain life-harboring planets just like Earth. One of those galaxies is called NGC 891. Another one is called M81. They're everywhere.

There is still no time travel, no ray guns, and no treatment for jetlag. We haven't cloned Jesus, bagged the Yeti, found Atlantis or stepped foot on Mars. There is still no viable substitute for fossil fuels, human blood, or the ozone layer.

On average, we each still take approximately seven minutes and twenty seconds to fall to sleep and we each need about eight hours of restorative sleep to function efficiently.

We are still each made up of over 75 trillion cells, 10 billion neurons, 206 bones, 46 chromosomes, 32 teeth, seven meters of small intestine and our skin, on average, still weighs about six pounds.

Our body temperature is still 98.6ºF.

At 29,035 feet, Mount Everest is still the highest point on Earth. A total of 1172 people have reached its summit since 1922 and 163 people have died trying. It beats being buried at sea. At 36,198 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and lying 210 miles southwest of Guam, the Marianas Trench is still the deepest point of any ocean on Earth. It was first reached in 1960 by two men in a US Navy bathyscape called The Trieste.

Trieste is also a city in Italy.

According to the US State Department, there are currently 191 countries in the world and there is still no global language. Unless you consider Esperanto a global language. Invented and introduced in 1887 by Dr L. L. Zamenhof, it is supposedly spoken by millions.

But more people probably speak Klingon.

"Goodbye" is "Qapla'" in Klingon.

Now, isn't that something?

Making a Living Off Maggots

I know what you're thinking: there just aren't enough jobs that involve picking maggots, beetles and flies from decomposing human remains. Well, I've got news for you. There are jobs aplenty. And anyone who is interested should read M. Lee Goff's A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes (Harvard University Press), published earlier this year.

Against a backdrop of tropical rainforests, Goff unapologetically cracks open a door to a less celebrated side of his native Hawaii -- and it's a buzzing, smelly, many-legged side that waits for anyone brave enough to enter.

As a fresh-faced young entomologist, Goff first approached a local medical examiner in 1983 to express his interest in forensic entomology, or the use of insect evidence to solve crime. And there his strange journey began. In the intervening years he has, with a handful of other forensic entomologists he refers to as the Dirty Dozen, developed reliable techniques to determine the interval between the death and discovery of a body using insect evidence.

Equal parts scientist and poet, Goff writes: "There's something a bit surreal in the sight of dew drops glistening in the morning sun on a spider web attached to a decomposing arm." You bet there is folks, and whatever that something is, Goff seems to like it very much.

In A Fly for the Prosecution, Goff painstakingly outlines some common methods of forensic entomology, including some gruesome and colorful case studies to prove their importance. And that means lots of dead bodies and lots of insects. Lots and lots of insects.

There are blowflies, houseflies, flesh flies, and black soldier flies. And don't forget moths, chiggers, wasps, ants and mites. Or hide beetles, darkling beetles, spiders or scorpions. Each of these species plays a unique role in the decomposition of a body and Goff can't wait to tell us how each is involved. The flies are attracted early, colonizing soft parts of the corpse like open wounds, or the ears, mouth, nose and eyes. The social insects, such as predatory ants and wasps, wait until the maggots and flies arrive for them to feed on. Others, like the hide beetle, wait even longer before feeding on the cartilage and dried tissues that remain after all the other species have filled their bellies, laid their eggs and left.

Make no mistake, the next time you're walking through the woods you'll remember this book, clamp your hands firmly over your soft parts and start running, actions that would make sense to you and I, and just about anyone else but Goff.

For when the slick, humid rainforest offers up a bloated murder victim, it is Goff who pulls on his boots and heads out with specimen-collecting gear in hand, eager to find some meaning in the insects that have already made a home of the body.

Once at the crime scene he collects samples of every insect developmental stage from the body including eggs, maggots, pupa and adults and takes them back to his laboratory for identification, preservation and hatching. Armed with photos from the scene, insect and weather data, and using pig decomposition studies as a reference, he calculates the time required for the body to reach the stage of decomposition in which it was found.

Without the pig decomposition studies to provide clues to patterns of insect activity, none of this would be possible. With characteristic bluntness, Goff writes of an early investigation: "Since I was attempting to duplicate a homicide, in one of my first studies I wanted to shoot each pig through the head with a 38-caliber pistol."

Read on, it gets worse: to duplicate insect invasion of beached drowning victims Goff threw a couple of dead pigs in the sea; strung dead pigs up in trees to imitate suicide by hanging and wrapped 'em up in blankets to recreate concealed bodies. And victims of arson? If you said he doused pigs with gasoline and set them on fire, you can give yourself a gold star.

"It is disconcerting to be collecting maggots from one end of a pig and look up to find a mongoose eating at the other end," writes Goff, reminding us to make sure our decomposing pig is sufficiently protected from non-insect predators. You don't get good pig rotting advice from Martha Stewart.

While this all might sound like really bad news for pigs, the results provide Goff with data to compare insect evidence to in criminal cases. In examples included in the book, he is able to estimate the post mortem interval to within a few hours, thereby discounting or supporting a suspect's alibi and providing testimony that leads to a conviction. Goff is a rare breed, a scientific adventurer, and accomplished investigator.

Perhaps most striking is the realization that, when we die, little can stop insects from using us as a quick-and-easy food source. Goff's vivid descriptions of murder victims as centers of frantic insect activity remind us that we are just animals, as tasty as road kill to a passing blowfly. Within ten minutes of a body drawing its final breath, the insects will be there and, as in some of Goff's more gruesome tales, they might not even wait for death to occur. They're hungry and neither fire nor water nor poison can slow them down enough to make a difference, a fact forensic entomologists like Goff rely upon for their livelihood.

So the next time you're attending a late office meeting or schmoozing a boring client, think of M. Lee Goff as he drives to another crime scene and remember: you don't really want to spend your time picking maggots and beetles from corpses and, while yours might not be the most exciting job in the world, it probably beats Goff's.


Grow Your Own M-M-M-Molars

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! Everybody loves a Chia Pet. For just $14.99 and a couple of weeks of diligent watering the whole family is rewarded with minutes of fun. Pretty soon, though, the dream dies and along with it goes the Chia Pet. Whether you were nurturing a Chia Pig, a Chia Kitten or the now much sought after Mr T Chia Head from the 1980s, the results are much the same after a month or two: something that looks like moldy cake and gives kids the willies.

But scientists finally have come up with something to rival Chia Pets.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas have successfully grown mouse teeth in a laboratory dish. And pretty soon they plan on growing human teeth too. In studying the process, scientists identified at least 25 mouse genes involved in tooth production and, while they suspect many more are involved in human tooth development, they believe similar techniques can be used to grow human teeth. The team also has successfully engineered mouse and human cells that produce certain components of the teeth, such as dentin and enamel. In doing so, they have a better understanding of the processes necessary for tooth formation and development.

The potential effects of such technology are many and promise to revolutionize future dental care. Within ten years, scientists hope they will be able to grow made-to-order incisors, canines, molars or premolars in a dish and supply them to a clinician for implantation, replacing lost or diseased teeth.

Think about that. It was only about 200 hundred years ago that George Washington commissioned his favorite dentist to carve him a lower denture from hippopotamus bone. Hippopotamus bone! And it was inlaid with eight human teeth. Eight human teeth!

Boy, he must have had a winning smile.

Ultimately, scientists hope to activate the genes responsible for tooth development within the gum tissue itself, causing new teeth to grow only where they are needed. They won’t even have to provide a clinician with new teeth for implantation, they’ll just need to inject the site at which new teeth are needed. But the team believes this will take longer, requiring years of research to better understand to mechanisms of tooth formation. According to press reports, the researchers are studying members of a number of families that suffer from a congenital disorder, causing them to grow too many teeth. Scientists hope the genes involved in tooth development will be easier to identify in members of these families.

In just a few decades, uncomfortable dentures and painful dental therapies will be replaced by simple and painless genetic treatment to initiate new tooth growth. Tooth loss due to traumatic injury also will be more successfully treated than by using current methodologies. In many Third-World countries, even today, dietary vitamin deficiences and inadequate dental care are responsible for oral disease and tooth loss in a majority of adolescents, a statistic that will be reversed using the new technology.

A trip to the dentist probably won’t be the terrifying prospect it is now, either. Admit it, none of us enjoy going to the dentist, it holds all the promise of visiting a Cold War gulag. But no longer will we have to sit in drab waiting rooms, leafing through six-year-old copies of Cosmopolitan, ignoring the whine of the drill and the sunlight glinting off the bars on the window. No. We’ll just get new teeth. And damn the cost. Its worth it. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, there are no bars on the window. But that screen looks pretty sturdy.

And, of course, there are many and varied other uses for a new technology like this. For instance, why would anyone want to grow a Chia Pet when they can grow a dishful of teeth? Even if scientists are not able to grow human teeth in the laboratory, kids everywhere can still grow a dishful of mouse teeth. This is America! Land of opportunity and, um, teeth. All across the country, in darkened bedrooms, ‘N Sync and Britney Spears posters will look down on dishes full of gleaming new teeth, arranged like pearls in a warm broth of nutrients.

What a thought!


Happy Holidays!