Happy new year to y’all. Well, at least in the UK it is for corporation tax. Income tax customers have to wait another five days for their new year.

We are presently in a period of grace granted by the EU, so I understand, for green and blue. My step-grandfather was a seaman and had tattoos, the outlines of which were still discernible though quite shadowy or blurred by the time I was old enough to even take any notice of them.

The EU are rightly concerned about the injection of hazardous substances into the skin (, even the topical application of some substances, such as polonium, is exceedingly dangerous though no one has suggested that that is in common use. The EU are more concerned about alcohols like isopropanol. I had a look at the list here:

I was interested to find creosote in the list. I can now either stop looking for it or expect it to reappear in the hardware stores; I am not sure which yet, it may become a totem of distinction from the EU or a sop at upholding their standards. I was rather surprised that polonium was not on the list, or perhaps I missed it.

You may have read, some years ago (I think it was late 20th century), of an alternative to tattoos which had been proposed by a number of French chemists who had worked with goldfish. They were looking into chemical substitution, a technique which was just becoming viable as we were discovering ways in which individual molecules could be manipulated. There were reports of some successful substitutions to produce blues, reds and whites but the techniques then were far too imprecise. It really was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, except that the nut could not be seen when viewed in the same frame as the head of the hammer. [I really liked the idea of new simile, coined in January, of using a fighting elephant to crush a flea, used by a certain Eastern country of a Western one, but realised, having attempted to crush fleas myself, that the flea is likely to be not at all perturbed about being underneath an elephant’s foot. It will just wait for the foot to move and .. Ping! Back to work mate]. However, though the work was abandoned for a time better techniques, which were developed for the sequencing of biologic molecules, and the ability to model in 3D the structures of complex organic molecules, led to the ability to manipulate these. To be able to cut threads of complex polymers and insert alien modules was the step that was required, which led to genetic modification. I would like to enter into a discussion here about the differences between genetic modification and selective breeding for they are often conflated by some who have an axe to grind, but this is not the place to do so, so I shall refrain from following my desire to do so. The ability to modify living organic material revived the ideas of chemical substitution, but now not so much with the single atom in mind but rather a sequence of coding modules in DNA. Melanin production in the subcutaneous skin is controlled by the chemical responses of these biologic structures to sunlight. The question was asked whether this could be modified in some specific ways.

Research began, as always by giving PhD students the dirty work without telling them what the real end game is, otherwise they might get the academic credit instead of you. It was quite difficult, but slowly a picture began to emerge of the processes involved, the active regions of the genome and how the differences between racial skin types affected discolouration. The real work then began, can modifications be made to change the responses of the skin? This was all hidden under the guise of finding better protections for skin from UV damage, which then attracted significant funding, though not widely publicised for fear of damaging the value of their own products, from cosmetic manufacturers. There were some small successes; limited areas little more than spots could be changed, but any increase in melanin production may have beneficial effects, and if the changes were enduring may afford better protection from UV damage.

The work continued, with the cosmetic industry involved in this clandestine work it was rather harder to do what they really wanted to do, to see if patterns could be created firstly with melanin, but also could different coloured responses be produced – greens and reds perhaps? This required work not only into the production of melanin but other colourful organics like hæmoglobin and the non active elements of chlorophyll. Some of this was quite risky as it was well known that the really vibrant colours of arsenic green, cobalt blue, cæsium orange and lead red were quite toxic in the human body, but it was also understood that if these were firmly locked into structures that the body itself produced it was unlikely that they would be broken down thus releasing the toxic components into the body where they could do damage.

This was likened to the way that a tattoo remains in situ. The tissues that contain the tattoo are renewed and worked continually, but the tattoo itself essentially retains its structure undisturbed over many years. Would this sort of thing be possible with the modified tissues? It would take years to find out of course in real human subjects, and would they get permission to try it? So they had then to find an animal with a sufficiently high metabolic rate that what would take several years in a human body may only take months. Hummingbirds were an obvious candidate, but the plumage was a problem (not to mention a certain amount of a good dose of sentimentality over using such a pretty bird in this way), so a separate programme was set up to understand the elements of the genome that controlled metabolic rates, and consider whether the appropriate factors could be introduced into the rat genome to enhance it. This was a fascinating work, and they soon discovered much more about the interrelatedness of the body’s functions though not really understanding what was actually going on. The work was being done however not with a view to understanding, that could come later, but simply to engineer the genome in the required way. Eventually, they made sufficient progress and upon seeing one of the first successfully enhanced rats, that one of the team remarked that it was as well they had not been working on bats else the simile ‘like a bat out of..’ would take on quite a different meaning.

It was the likeness to the tattoo that solved their second problem, though that could not be revealed at this stage. The result of the tattoo artist’s work produces an analogue design, but the tool is a needle inserted at discrete points. This pixelated approach could be used for the genetic modifications of the skin. They also realised that this greatly enhanced the variety of colouration that was possible. It was thought that they then needed to find three modifications that produced the tricolour of ‘primary’ colours (like RGB or CMY). A larger palette of colours would be more useful, but much more difficult to handle. The reduced palette however allowed them to, at least initially, remove the more potentially dangerous modifications for the really vibrant colours aforementioned.

The results on the rats were promising. The modifications did remain in situ over the rats, admittedly short and rather shortened lifetimes, and did not seem to have any adverse effects. Would the modifications endure in much longer living organisms? The programme would take five to ten years, and the subjects would be pigs. In the meantime work continued on the rats into production of different colours and patterns, mostly using simply blue, white and red stripes to check alignments and later some quite simple images where colours were mixed producing some remarkable results.

The researchers started to draw up business plans, but they new they would have to wait before going public for the work on the pigs to conclude, and for no epidemic of swine flu to break out in their subjects.

Leaving the laboratory, April, one of the team working with the rats, noticed that there was a new prominent notice on the tattoo parlour on the other side of the road. The notice declared in quite clear terms (as you might expect) their sentiments concerning the EU ink ban, and the devastating impact upon the ‘industry’ and artists who work in it, and then went on to announce a new service. They acknowledged that the vibrancy of tattoos would be damaged by the new rules, and that this may have a significant impact upon the self-esteem of those who wished to be painted. They also acknowledged that some of the substitute inks that they would be permitted to use had the blurring and shadowing issues seen in many older people who had been painted many years earlier. April thought that it was good to read such an honest admission of what is generally known but rarely acknowledged. The notice then went on to describe the new service. The parlour was going to specialise, and would become a post-mortem tattoo parlour for those who want a tattoo to look its best at the end, not just at the beginning. They knew how disappointed many people felt years after their tattoo that it was not what it was. The notice encouraged those who wished to be painted to wait. They could still book their slot and pay a deposit now, with the balance to be paid just before the work was done. They would be assured that the tattoo would be of the highest quality, and would not be subject to the EU rules limiting the inks that could be used. They were promised that cobalt blue, arsenic green, cæsium orange and red lead would be used if required with some even more exotic options of radium blue, promethium and tritium greens for those who wished to be seen in dimmer lighting. They would be provided with digitally produced images of the finished work to show to friends before the work had been done, and would have the guarantee that it would not fade, nor blur nor shadow. Provision would be made, in conjunction with the undertakers for the tattoo to be displayed in a most sensitive and respectful way possible, prior to cremation or burial as appropriate. A footnote informed readers that the use of radium blue would not be permitted where a cremation was to follow.

April was about to go into the shop to find out what they meant when she realised that that was some kind of joke and stormed off, annoyed that it was not the first time she had been fooled into wasting her time reading such things.