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The best use for 3D bioprinting? Reconstructing Van Gogh’s severed ear, obviously

The stuff that people are 3D printing these days just keeps getting crazier. One day it’s researchers printing a working speaker, and the next day you hear about somebody who’s figured out a way to print fruit. It’s absolutely nuts, but just when you think 3D printing has reached peak weirdness, something like this pops up:

A Dutch artist by the name of Diemut Strebe has apparently joined forces with a team of scientists to print a true-to-life reconstruction of Vincent Van Gogh’s severed ear. And it’s not just some half-baked plastic rendering either. Thanks to a sophisticated 3D bioprinter and some meticulous DNA research, the ear is printed with living human cells taken from Liewe Van Gogh, the great-grandson of Vincent’s brother Theo, who happens to share about 1/16th of the same genes as the famed 19th century painter. 

So, technically speaking, this representation isn’t the exact same ear that Van Gogh chopped off himself and delivered to a brothel back in 1888 — but it’s pretty damn close. Originally, the plan was to use Van Gogh’s actual DNA, extracted from an envelope that he supposedly licked back in the 19th century. But after testing the envelope, the DNA turned out to be somebody else’s, so Strebe was forced to climb down the family tree and find the painter’s nearest living relative.

The crazy thing is, because it’s grown from living human cells, the ear is technically alive. And as if that wasn’t weird enough, thanks to the help of embedded microphones that are linked up to a computer, it can actually hear, too. Visitors to the The Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany —where the ear is currently on display— can speak into the reformed appendage and have their words understood.

“You can talk to the ear. The input sound is processed by a computer using software that converts it to simulate nerve impulses in real time. The speaker remains in soliloquy. The crackling sound that is produced is used to outline absence instead of presence.” explains the museum.

The piece is on display in Germany until July 6th, and will be coming to New York in spring 2015.