D.I.Y. Biology, on the Wings of the Mockingjay

From The New York Times:

HungGenetically modified organisms are not wildly popular these days, except one: a fictional bird that is central to the hugely popular movie and book trilogy “The Hunger Games.” That’s the mockingjay, a cross between a mockingbird and a genetically engineered spy bird called a jabberjay. The action in “The Hunger Games” takes place in a fictional future in which teenagers are forced to hunt and kill one another in annual competitions designed to entertain and suppress a highly controlled population. The mockingjay first appears as a symbol, when Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, is given a pin that depicts the bird. Mockingjay pins, although not the birds, have spread to the real world. “They’re funny birds and something of a slap in the face to the Capitol,” Katniss explains in the first book. And the nature of that slap in face is a new twist on the great fear about genetic engineering, that modified organisms or their genes will escape into the wild and wreak havoc. The mockingjay is just such an unintended consequence, resulting from a failed creation of the government, what Katniss means when she refers to “the Capitol.” But rather than being a disaster, the bird is a much-loved reminder of the limits of totalitarian control.

The origin of the bird, Katniss explains, is that the rulers modified an unspecified species of jay to make a new creature, an animal of the state called a jabberjay. Jabberjays were intended to function as biological recording machines that no one would suspect. They would listen to conversations and then return to their masters to replay them. The jabberjays, all male, were left to die out when the public realized what they were doing. Like genetically modified organisms today, the jabberjays were not expected to survive in the wild, but they bred with mockingbirds and produced a thriving hybrid that could mimic human sounds and songs, and lived on, to the irritation of the government and the delight of the people.

More here.

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