"It's a new way of thinking about cloning," Keats told Discovery News. "Genetics is not the whole story, the breakthrough field is epigenetics."
Keats plans to culture yeast and expose it to the same chemicals the corresponding famous person is exposed to. In the case of Michael Phelps or Barack Obama, it's the chemicals associated with their diets. "We know pretty well what the White House diet is," he said. "Or with Michael Phelps, he takes in lots of carbs."
Keats is using yeast because it's a common model organism in biology, used to study metabolic pathways.
So in Michael Phelps' case, the yeast cells will get a big helping of phosphates, vitamin B12 and thiamine, all of which reflect the Olympic swimmer's regimen of five-egg omelets, chocolate chip pancakes and coffee. "Effectively, what happens is the cells will become more Phelps-ian," Keats said.
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Diet isn't the only factor. Obama was once a smoker and he chewed Nicorette gum. So aside from the White House chef's menu, Keats will be giving the yeast cells nicotine. Lady Gaga's famous "drunk diet" and her habit of eating vegetables and fish will also get a spin.
Keats added that he's looking at other famous figures as well. George Washington, for instance, was known to drink a lot of Madeira wine. For Jesus Christ, he is investigating what people of his class and ethnic group ate.
The project also reflects a progression towards realism in the visual arts. "There's this drive to verisimilitude," he said. "Once there were black and white photos, then color, then movies."
The yeast clones will be exhibited starting Sept. 13 at the AC Institute in New York.
Credits: Barack Obama: Bob Daemmrich/Corbis; Lady Gaga: WWD/Conde Nast/Corbis; yeast samples: Jonathan Keats