Making a real-world Pandora

Thursday, 14 January, 2010

While many movie-goers were saddened as they left the world of Pandora and came back to Earth, I was not. Instead, as I left the cinema after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, I was instead happily musing about how the beautiful flora and fauna of Pandora could be created. For real. Here, on Earth.

For me, I was most amazed by the prevalence of bioluminescence among the plants, and even animals, of Pandora. The bioluminescence is especially obvious with the Trees of Souls and Tree of Voices, but nearly all plants and fungi seem to have bioluminescent properties. Bioluminescence is obvious in some Pandoran insects and lizards, and the sentient Na’vi also have lines of blue photophores on their skin.

A tank of firefly squid (Watasenia scintillans) caught off the coast of Namerikawa, Japan.

Fortunately, bioluminescence is not something entirely alien. Many organisms on our own planet are also bioluminescent, though most bioluminescent animals live in the deep ocean (though exceptions, such as glowworms and fireflies, are well-known). Bioluminescence has evolved in insects, molluscs (especially squid), fish, jellyfish, fungi, plankton and bacteria, but to my knowledge no naturally bioluminescent plant species exist on Earth.

I had to say ‘naturally’  in the last sentence of the above paragraph because in recent times, many animals and plants have been genetically engineered to express the firefly (Photinus pyralis) enzyme called luciferase. This enzyme, in the presence of its substrate (luciferin) produces a yellow-green bioluminescence. There are also many other natural and mutated enzymes, allowing for bioluminescence with colours of red , orange, yellow, green, blue and even violet.

Bioluminescence of the bitter oyster fungus (Panellus stipticus) found near Springdale, Wisconsin, USA.

With advances in the knowledge of the chemistry and biology of bioluminescence, genetically-engineered bioluminescent plants and animals may become as commonplace on Earth as on Pandora. As very efficient solar-powered lights (in addition to being very attractive), gardens might be lit by the very plants that inhabit them. We might make animals that can use bioluminescence as a signal, like pets that literally light up when they see their owner. The bioluminescent magic seen in Avatar is entirely feasible!

Na’vi are human-like in appearance, but are much taller (almost 3m tall) and have some alien characteristics – blue striped skin, pointy and mobile pinna (external part of the ear), catlike tails and (with the exception of the avatars) only four digits on their hands and feet. They also have larger (and yellow) eyes compared to human proportions, flatter noses and slimmer physiques. It’s also mentioned in the film that the Na’vi are stronger and have hardier bones. Each of these characteristics is at least biologically plausible, and so it might be possible to turn a human into something resembling very closely a Na’vi.

Some humans have traits that make them more Na’vi-like than others, and with research the genetic reasons for this difference could yield ways to make a human into a Na’vi. Pituitary gigantism (causing greatly increased growth hormone) can produce humans with heights of up to 2.7m, and it’s possible that a similar pathway can be used for genetic enhancement of skeletal height without the associated health issues of gigantism. Enhancement of bone strength might also solve some of these health problems, and I foresee that stronger bones and muscles will be a desirable trait for future human enhancement (and therefore will be well-researched). Finally, the fact that some humans naturally have very slender physiques suggest the trait might be able to be genetically engineered, and narrow waists, though historically achieved through the use of corsets, should also prove amenable to genetic modification.

An okopipi, or blue poison dart frog (Dendrobates azureus), native to Suriname and Brazil (by ucumari on flickr.com)

Inspiration for more alien features of the Na’vi was found in the animals of Earth, and perhaps we might be able to borrow from these animals genomes. As the very distant ancestors of humans had a tail, restoring one should prove relatively simple also. Animals with mobile pointed pinna exist and are well known (such as the common cat), so with some research, humans could be engineered to have similar. Reducing the number of digits might be more difficult, as five digits is the normal for most, but fortunately not all, limbed vertebrates (and, as the avatars still had five digits, reducing digits to four might not be desirable). Blue skin should be possible, though blue pigment molecules are rare, but one could perhaps be engineered and human skin engineered to produce it instead of the red and brown pigment molecules pheomelanin and eumelanin). Similarly for yellow iris pigmentation (either that, or contact lenses).

Creating the other animals of Pandora, however, might prove more difficult. The other animals seem to mostly be hexapods; Direhorses, Ikran, Thanator and Titanothere all have six legs. The base body plan for limbed vertebrates on Earth is four limbs, and there are no six-limbed vertebrates from which any inspiration can be drawn. Nonetheless, there is nothing biologically implausible about hexapodal mammals and reptiles, so one day such creatures could be created.

The Ikran (also known as Mountain Banshee) could prove the most problematic to engineer. Earth’s gravity is greater than that of Pandora, and the musculature required for powered flight is therefore much greater (and heavier). Because of this, flying creatures on Earth are seldom very large, with the largest ever to exist (Argentavis) weighing only around 100kg (certainly less than the mass of a Na’vi) and a wingspan of 6-8m (the Ikran wingspan is 14m). Though with great re-engineering of muscle tissue, strong but light muscles could circumvent this issue. But don’t even get me started on a Toruk.

So, finally I want to mention perhaps the most imaginative aspect of Pandoran biology – the entire ecosystem of Pandora is seemingly connected into one super-consciousness, termed Eywa. The roots of plants carry signals from one tree to another, and animals (including the Na’vi) have a ‘queue’ (or many queues) extending from the back of their neck, which they can use to connect to other animals (allowing sensory and motor systems to merge) or to certain plants, like the Tree of Souls and Tree of Voices, allowing memories to be accessed and other functions.

A weeping willow (Salix × sepulcralis) photographed with an infra-red filter in Washington D.C, USA (by zachstern on flickr.com)

An analogy is drawn by Dr Augustine between the network of plants on Pandora and a network of neurons in a brain. While this might be valid in terms of numbers of connections, the electrochemical signals used by neurons only travel at a maximum velocity of 120m/s. If the network of Pandora uses similar mechanisms, it would take many minutes for signals to propagate across even a small section of forest and perhaps hours to reach the entire landmass. This is far too slow to produce any coherent or conscious thought. I’m sure there’s some sort of fantastical explanation, as I’ve heard talk of psionic energy or something similarly unreal, allowing for light-speed communication. That might also explain how the animals of Pandora were connected to this network at all times without being tethered to a tree (but simultaneously makes the queue rather redundant as a form of communication).

Anyway, the biological plausibility of interfacing two animals with a queue together is much higher. The queue seems to extend from the base of the head, near the brainstem, which makes it another extension to the central nervous system, secondary to the spinal cord (it occurs to me that extending the spinal cord into the tail, and using that as a queue, might be easier to engineer). This could feasibly allow any motor signals to be sent via either the spinal cord or the queue depending on what is being controlled (e.g. the Na’vi’s hands or the Ikran’s wings), and for any sensory information to be relayed from the brain to the other organism (e.g. the Ikran’s wings to the Na’vi’s brain). A very strong Tsahaylu (connection) between two Na’vi is said to occur during mating. While I’m sure feeling what your mate does and influencing their actions would, as a reciprocal form of communication, lead to totally awesome lovemaking, I doubt that this would lead to any merging of consciousness, as this distances between the brains would be too great for coherent thoughts. Nonetheless, perhaps sharing of memories and feelings could occur, though perhaps not complete thoughts.

I don’t think it will be possible to recreate every aspect of Pandora in the near future. Floating mountains would likely be a significant geoengineering problem for many years to come. And low gravity

I think the sadness and even weltschmerz experienced by those fans of Avatar is entirely justified, but being dissatisfied with reality is nothing new to transhumanists. But I just want to say this: if you want to live in a world like Pandora, then why not go ahead and make this world (or a small section of it) just like it! If you want to be a Na’vi, then why not engineer yourself to be just like one! Go study biology: plant and animal genetic engineering, bioluminescence, biomechanics, neuroscience and so on. Are you prepared to work toward making a better planet, a better ecosystem, and better people?



  1. That’s a bit much…
    I love the film! But I think that fantasy is fantasy for a reason. It’s to be enjoyed for a moment and then put away so that we can focus on what is REAL!

    • Well, I wasn’t being entirely serious about trying to replicate Pandora exactly. But I do think the real world is every bit as magical as Pandora, and with future advances in genetic engineering, the flora and fauna of the future will make James Cameron’s imagination look quite limited.

      • Fiction often inspires reality, or the propagation of it. It is only natural that these things happen. Bioluminescence will happen, lock, stock and barrel, is already happening. For me its exciting–imagine what people will think when they see stuff glowing in my garden!! Maybe I’ll be a celebrity, or better yet, the younger chicks will dig me and, well you know.

        Like it or not this is happening. Question is how will it fit in?

  2. Ok, you make it sound like genetic engineering is a fail safe thing. In moderation and with care it’s useful and sustainable agriculturists and seedmakers, etc. who say breed strong disease resistant tomato plants with other plants to make them stronger, and use the best plants that are already present here, and to help them develop is fine. Though the problem w/ creating worlds is we cant, to think humans know or could control genomes successfully with no immense unforeseen variables, that are detrimental is a nice science fiction thought. Though science is so young, and most geneticists would never claim to know exactly how to do everything, or that people could plausibly control life, and have these life forms would be extremely healthy and lasting. People who like nature or have a respect for the boundaries of it, understand that people’s intelligence is young, and we’re still learning so much, and there is a sort of mystery to everything in life that we don’t get, and most likely will never fully or very well understand. It’s there and things like evolution, etc, hold the world and biotic life steady, and to think scientists and geneticists could do all the known and infinite amount of unseen and unknown tasks, and things nature automatically on its own, just by ourselves is pretty arrogant and self absorbed, and feels and seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Technology has limits, it’s interesting and when used wisely and with clean power it can be beneficial and make life convenient and easy. But the point of avatar was not just the beautiful world and people just wishing they could experience that, is was the simple, fulfilling, and adventurous life these Na’vi’s lead all in the fact that they just learned and adapted to living in the world that they did and living with the creatures and flora present there, and letting them flourish also. Rather than domineering, destroying and molding everything into what they thought was best at all costs and all risks. Only a mad man, would refashion an entire world to fit his own finite selfish wants, rather than change his own finite wants to live well and endurably in the world. You talk about people sacrificing so much if the technological world wasn’t here, and that all our problems as humans are solved now, but 1: that’s anything but true and 2: now our problems as people are immensely larger than they’ve ever been in nature, nuclear weapons are commonplace and real threats, bio-terrorism, overpopulation, antibacterial resistance diseases becoming more common because of all the shitty food we eat, all the ecological destruction of the world we live on that makes biotic life possible, etc, etc, etc. It’s ok I’m not dogging on you, but I don’t think there’s an ideal way to live, like you seem to think people who like nature and want to respect it think there is. That’s the opposite of the truth, I personally, would never claim to know what’s right, but I’m not about to question or spit on the magic and awe of the creation that makes everything, including ourselves, or think we could yield it with wisdom, fairness, perfection or do it for anything but for selfish reasons. Look how we act now, we have no respect or consideration for anything but economic growth or the great world economy no one’s thought to question. People don’t have to live at war and odds with nature like we do now, they can live in it, and with it beneficially, and at this point we probably need to fight for even that option and possibility with the way things are going in our world, that was the point of Avatar. I think you missed that but anyways, it’s ok I’m not trying to dog on you, I’m just rambling and…rambling I suppose… Bye :)

    • I’m aware of the moral of Avatar, but it wasn’t really relevant to this post. I was merely trying to show that the fanciful creations of James Cameron might be re-created here on Earth.

      I fully comprehend that we don’t know everything (indeed, if we did, I’d be out of a job), but we’ve no way of knowing how much we don’t know. And yes, technology is limited and not everything is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean we need to abandon all technology and go frolic in the forest. If we can safely enhance the world, or ourselves, there’s nothing bad about trying to do so. Nature isn’t inherently good.

  3. I personally believe there’s some kind of likelyhood that Na’vis might be breeded on earth soon. I have eveb read an article recently that bioscientists want to replicate them based on human steamcells and DNA from other species (plants, animals from EARTH). Dunno yet why they wanna see real Na’vi on earth but they have a reason for certain. We may see Na’vi on earth in some years but I doubt that humans will ‘upgrade’ themselfes to become creatures like them, also I doubt there’s a will and funding to replicate animals seen on Pandora.

  4. hey i applaud for your thoughts, i totally agree with you. We can make make our real world as pretty as Pandora. Its your creativity that counts, if im not mistaken. as a human i can take my creativity to with way i want n mind anybody has no right to say im going too far. I know now realist will say are you joking, to them all i have to say ” if creativity is brought out in a SANE way like you then i see no problem”. WOW loved the post, your creativity n for god sake can’t any body see the detailed research you have done.

  5. i agree..your research and knowledge is definately to be applauded!! thank you for your wonderful insight, and for those of us who are not as ‘up with the technological play’, we can still create a piece of pandora here on earth by starting with our own positive peaceful inner thoughts..connecting with nature, respecting our planet and all living things..

  6. I hope they can make Pandora here on earth with the trees, plants, animals, connection with all living and convert humans to na’vi. Because some of humans feel that they dont fit in this society, personally i dont fit either, and make people with the nature not of the nature. Long time ago, humans lived like na’vi do, but then knowledge got bigger and people start making things out of nature and it just growing, some people can deal with this and some can not, those who can live with it, they try to get a powerfull human (like the Na’vi people they have no more power than the other, but only a leader, they have still rights to be heard like every others have) that can buy allmost priceless things and those priceless things cost more from nature than 100.000 other humans use in one year, like mining need explosives, building big houses need alot of wood, making fast food needs more of nature because they need a place to support many people and alot of things and those thing breaks easily from alot of use, so it cost more from nature than ever. So if they can make pandora and make alots of humans to live with the nature like avatar movie, the earth would be more green, since people that lived of nature can now live with nature. Nature can make food for humans and other animals, but todays humans, we make food from nature, not the nature that make food for us, becuase people are spoiled and just want more and you can see what is happening with connection of humans, its allmost lost, and all the machines that taking over humans work makes humans lazy and lose their purpose of life. So i really hope that they can make pandora on earth, so people (humans) can get that feeling of pride, have a meaning in life and can be heard no matter who you are, make all the connection of life and life with nature would be a great place for many and become like the na’vi. When pandora and rest on the earth would not interfere with each other, then the place of pandora on earth would be a very peacefull and meaningfull place for many.

  7. Make Pandora just like in the Avatar Movie would help alots of people and the Earth from destruction.
    To live free and with the nature, feel the life of nature, live in the wild, would make alot s of people to feel like home. To make Pandora on Earth away from other human made rules and society. Live in peace with others and nature that humans cant. Make Pandora on Earth would save alot of earth rescoures, but Earth-Pandora must be like in the movie, not like all the human made up rules, or pandora will not have the sucess. If they can make Pandora on Earth Somewhere maybe not the flying mountians, but just like in the movie (Take with you need to survive and nothing more. Like you cant surivive on a laptop or a car) If they can make it just like Pandora and convert humans into a Na’vi, i would love to become a na’vi in a human made Pandora, but only if people(humans) dont interfere with pandora or make it like a animal park and making money on it, they need to do that because they want to keep Earth alive, that humans can live and making Pandora on Earth with all the deep Rainforest, will help Earth to live in the furture.

  8. […] | Toledo Newspaper James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game [DS] Review · WiiDS.co.uk &mi.. Making a real-world Pandora « Human Enhancement and Biopolitics Avatar: A Review How Much Did Avatar Cost « How Many How Much. Online how many how mu.. Awards […]

  9. If we ever would be able to turn ourselves into Na’vi. It will cure many from the Avatar blues though, not sayin Im there, but it would certainly be cool to be 2.8-3m tall, blue and awesome.

  10. Alright that is an awesome article to have a debate over! First off the movie was and to me still is awesome! The thing that I didn’t understand though is that we can make these beautiful peaceful worlds on a tv screen…. But I look around and for some odd reason as an intelligent race ourselves, we can’t seem to make things happen like that here on our own planet! You see global warming all around us, huge oil spills, poaching, huge trash dumps, people starving and dying left and right, wars almost constantly (even in the past)….. I would really love to see something as awesome and beautiful as Pandora, and I would love to see part of our world like the Na’vi’s as well! But to tell ya the truth I don’t think our race of people are intelligent and responsible enough to take care of a world like that! We just care about the value of everything instead of taking the time to enjoy it while we are still around! The more I look around now-a-days I see people so obsessed with their cell phone or their make-up… But I never see people just go out and enjoy what we have in nature and life just for the fun of it! We aren’t going to be around forever, unless someone miraculously makes an anti-aging serum! But we need to enjoy this planet while we are here and not destroy with things that aren’t natural! And people are always worried about their children! What about our children? What’s going to be left for them after we use up all of our natural resources because of our selfish ways? And what about their childrens children? By that time this place will probably be almost inhabitable! I’m glad that I won’t be around to see our earth fall like that! But I do hope that one day people will get their heads out of their — and grow up a little bit! We could make all of our wildest dreams come true!

  11. when i saw the movie i thought the same thing
    and it motivated to do exactly what you were talking about here. a bioluminescent weeping willow would be like the tree of souls…the things in that movie i too do believe is possible and i wish to work towards making it real…and i will

  12. i think it sounds awesome. for my hole life ive thought about what i wanted to be when i grew up, like a vet, wepons designer, computer programmer ect. and i absolutaly love the movie avatar. i highjacked my dads itunes and baught the game on my iphone. so i think i will bea bio engeneerewateva majiga and do as u encoraged :) thanm you. u inspired me. and i do recomend that people should read “avatar:an activists survival guide” by maria wilhelm and dirk mathison. the section warning was devistating for earth as to what it sais will happen. and then the book explains flora and forna and the na’vi culture. i love that book. ive read it like 17 times.its amazing. and to everyone…never give up!! :)

  13. Thanks, can I share this?

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  15. I know reality is a pain in the stinger but this is what we are. Yes I wish I had wings, super strength and the ability to change into anything, though I must learn as a 12 child that fantasy is fun though it’s not us. We all must learn to be ourselves no matter how hard you want to change it. Life is life and reality is reality and science will never change that, well not in the next couple of generations😋. I love the passage and how it explains everything but nothing will ever change, no matter how hard you try. Janet’s Everyday Challenge 😇😇

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