Guest post byDevang Mehta
This September, as part of their annual symposium, EUSynBioSwill hold an Open Discussion on the topic, Synthetic Biology and Environmental Engineering,at the National Center for Biotechnology, Madrid, Spain. They will host experts in the field to talk about the science and the more difficult aspects of public acceptance and bioethics surrounding geoengineering and synthetic biology.
Geoengineering is a word that means many things to many people. Formally defined as the deliberate intervention in the climate system to counteract man-made global warming, for some scientists it represents a cheap and effective way to protect our planet from the ravages of climate change. To others, it is symptomatic of technological hubris: a grand, doomed plan to control every aspect of our ecosystem. Dig past the rhetoric though and you find a science thats still in its infancy, being developed by scientists around the globe, almost as a last resort in the (now very possible) event that on-going efforts to avert climate catastrophe by reducing global emissions fail.
Current research on geoengineering is focused on either removing carbon dioxide from the Earths atmosphere or reducing global warming by reflecting more solar radiation away from the planet. Most proposals to achieve these goals rely on physical engineering solutions, cloud seeding for instance. A more expansive reading of geoengineering though, leads to several intriguing ideas on using synthetic biology to remedy the effects of intensive industrialisation/pollution on the environment.
I.Pale blue dot
In 1980, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed the status of living organisms forever. InDiamond v. Chakrabartythe court affirmed the right of inventors to patent living organisms that had been modified for some purpose. In this case, the patent was granted to a genetically engineered creature called the Superbug. The Superbug was a strain ofPseudonomas putidathat could break down crude oil, and was posited as a tool to deal with oil spills. Since then, theres been a lot of work in developing such organisms, spawning a field of science called bioremediation that seeks to undo the damage human industry causes the environment.
Now, a group of scientists is advocating the use of such organisms on a global scale to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Their, very SciFi-ish,ideas include: modifying particular species of bacteria that exist in harsh environments like deserts andequipping them with water harvesting capabilities; releasing entire stretches of DNA into a biosphere and allowing them to spread, equipping any host creature with water/temperature sensing capabilities, or releasing bacteria into the oceans that can causepieces of plastic to stick to each other, solving the scourge of microplastic pollution.
biologists are ever-aware of the conceit involved in predicting biological futures
These and other ideas find few takers,though, and carry some real risks. We would have to be prepared to deal with the fact that any man-made bacteria released into a particular part of the world mightescapea particular ecosystem, potentially wreaking havoc in others. Biological entities evolve, and evolution might change released modified bacteria in unpredictable ways.
These are concerns synthetic biologists are tackling head on. In the last five years, weve made tremendous progress in engineeringkill-switchesthat could allow us to precisely control engineered bacteria in natural ecosystems. Weve also developed bacteria which have beenso extensively engineeredthat they cannot interact with other life-forms very well, or cannot reproduce, hence limiting the potential spread of synthetic DNA. Yet, biologists are ever-aware of the conceit involved in predicting biological futures and for the moment these bacteria will remain in Petri dishes in labs around the world.
II.The red planet
The largest concern with biological geo-engineering is the fact that we might cause dangerously irreversible changes to the only habitable planet we know of. This is whyagroup of scientists,including NASA researchers, are exploring biological options in terraforming Mars. The hopes are many, ranging from making Mars human-habitable (paving the way for eventual human colonisation), to using the red planet as a test-bed for ecosystem engineering whose lessons might then rescue the Earth from climate catastrophe. Less futuristic scenarios include the possibility of employing bacteria to harvest resources directly from Mars, or recycling consumable resources like waste-water, making manned Mars-missions a cheaper and easier endeavour. Most experts agree though that terraforming, the process of completely changing Mars atmosphere is a process that could take centuries. A nearer-term option is something called para-terraforming. Paraterraforming envisions making smaller, enclosed spaces on Mars habitable for humans. Previous experiments in paraterraforming conducted on Earth have met with little success; however the prospect of engineering organisms specifically for terraforming makes this a more feasible proposition.
Some, however, question the ethics of using Mars as a lab-bench. One argument is that any human attempt at terraforming Mars might destroy or alter any remnant, hitherto undiscovered life on the planet. Another, that seeding Mars with terrestrial life may change a potential independent development of biological life on the planet in the distant future. These are minority opinions, however. A view that, in my opinion, holds more merit suggests that the creation of Mars as a back-up planet might hinder attempts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change and pollution here on Earth.
III.A last resort
There are two forms of climate change mitigation on the table at the moment,passiveandactive.Passive mitigation uses methods that are easier to swallow for most, reducing global consumption, stricter pollution controls, and switching to low-carbon sources of energy. The problem, however, lies in the fact that passive mitigation alone might not be enough to limit global warming to the 2C threshold set bythe Paris Agreement.Indeed, experts arehighly scepticalthat limiting warming to even 4C is feasible given current trends. And the difference between a 2C and 4C limit is that the latter will result in massive droughts, flooding on an unprecedented scale and food shortages.
In this scenario, several climate experts have called for more drastic measures including non-biological geoengineering technologies cloud-seeding. In fact, some estimatesclaimthat cloud-seeding on a large enough scale might even bring global temperatures down to below pre-industrial levels. In this scenario then, would we even need a biological solution that might carry more risk?
A possible benefit of biological remediation is of course that we might be able to rescue ecosystems that are on the brink of collapse, something that physical solutions like cloud seeding might never be able to achieve. Biological solutions can address biological problems in a manner that purely physical measures might struggle to. Another aspect of synthetic biology, thede-extinctionof extinct species, is something that might supplement the reduction in global warming with the restoration of lost biospheres.
On the policy front, geoengineering is a topic that is often scoffed at or neglected in favour of discussions such as emissions reduction. The reasons for this are legitimate, though, given the current political climate with theUS backing out of climate accords, the dream of a 2C reduction in global warming seems to be growing ever more distant. Science agencies across the world are waking up to this fact, and just a couple of months ago Chinaannounced the worlds largest geoengineering research program. As of now, geoengineering remains a last resort, and biological measures even more so.
This isnt stopping scientists from experimenting with it though, and nor should it.
About the author:Devang Mehta,Devang is currently a PhD student in Plant Biotechnology and Science & Policy at ETH Zurich. He also serves on the EUSynBioS Steering Committee as Policy Officer. Follow him on twitter at@_devangmor check out his blog atwww.devang.bio.
Photos: All photos used under CC0 license.
View original post here:
Geoengineering and Synthetic Biology - PLoS Blogs (blog)
- Stanford Medicine magazine reports on the future of vision - Stanford Medical Center Report - August 25th, 2017
- OU Biology professor awarded grant for corneal research - News at OU - August 15th, 2017
- The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) Appoints SPARGO, Inc. as Official Exposition and Advertising Sales and ... - Newswise (press release) - August 15th, 2017
- Alexion, Sema4 Partner on Rare Disease Diagnostics and Systems Biology - Drug Discovery & Development - August 15th, 2017
- Student-friendly, research-savvy new Biology Building opens its doors - Source - August 15th, 2017
- Nominations open for the PLOS Computational Biology Research Prize! - PLoS Blogs (blog) - August 15th, 2017
- How to Leverage the Biology of Healthy Leadership (And Why Leaders Have a Duty to Take Care of Themselves) - HuffPost - August 14th, 2017
- We've studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn't support the Google memo. - Recode - August 14th, 2017
- Google Manifesto: Does Biology Explain Gender Disparities in Tech? - Live Science - August 13th, 2017
- Sleep biology discovery could lead to new insomnia treatments that ... - UCLA Newsroom - August 13th, 2017
- Google worker says women don't advance in tech because of biology - CBS News - August 7th, 2017
- Researchers describe protein previously unknown in biology - Phys.Org - August 7th, 2017
- Can Buddhist Practices Help Us Overcome The Biological Pull Of Dissatisfaction? - NPR - August 7th, 2017
- The biology of color - Science Magazine - August 7th, 2017
- Thermo Fisher Scientific Advances Cryo-EM Leadership to Drive Structural Biology Discoveries - Markets Insider - August 7th, 2017
- Cell Atlases Reveal Biology's Frontiers - Quanta Magazine - July 12th, 2017
- CRISPR adds storing movies to its feats of molecular biology - Science News Magazine (blog) - July 12th, 2017
- Era of 'Biological Annihilation' Is Underway, Scientists Warn - New York Times - July 12th, 2017
- Biology test no longer required for high school diploma | The Seattle ... - The Seattle Times - July 12th, 2017
- Crowdfunding campaign supports biology field study - Cornell Chronicle - July 12th, 2017
- Synthetic Biology Advance May Put Microbiomes on the Clock - Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News - July 12th, 2017
- University of Vermont faculty win grant to explore biology major - vtdigger.org - July 12th, 2017
- Carbon nanotubes mimic biology - Phys.org - Phys.Org - July 12th, 2017
- SJW's Melt After Feminist YouTuber Tells Them Human Biology 101 - The Federalist - July 12th, 2017
- Sea Spiders Move Oxygen with Pumping Guts, Marine Biologists Say - Sci-News.com - July 12th, 2017
- Molecular Biology Enzymes and Kits and Reagents Market Worth $26.7 Billion by 2025: Grand View Research, Inc. - PR Newswire (press release) - June 29th, 2017
- Readers respond to climate activists, Washington's biology-test twist - Pacific Northwest Inlander - June 29th, 2017
- Chemists discover biology's version of the Friedel-Crafts alkylation - The Biological SCENE - June 29th, 2017
- SCOTUS just made a mockery of biology AND the Second Amendment - Conservative Review - June 28th, 2017
- Biology teacher is accused of soliciting sex with a teenager - Lexington Herald Leader - June 28th, 2017
- Biology professor Paul Sniegowski is named new Dean of the College - The Daily Pennsylvanian - June 27th, 2017
- Cancer studies pass reproducibility test - Science Magazine - June 27th, 2017
- WLU launching masters in biology programs - The Steubenville Herald-Star - June 26th, 2017
- Transgender Prejudice And The Belief In A Biological Basis For ... - NPR - June 26th, 2017
- Nixing state's biology exam results prudent - Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - June 26th, 2017
- Turkey pulls evolution from its high school curriculum - Ars Technica - June 26th, 2017
- NIMBioS: Mathematical Biology Tackles Destructive Plant Virus - Tennessee Today - June 23rd, 2017
- High schoolers may not need to pass biology test to graduate - The Daily Herald - June 23rd, 2017
- Combined molecular biology test is the first to distinguish benign ... - Medical Xpress - June 23rd, 2017
- Central Cabarrus teacher racks up awards doing something she loves - Independent Tribune - June 23rd, 2017
- Seniors who failed biology assessment test would get diplomas under new deal - The Spokesman-Review - June 22nd, 2017
- Beautycounter's scientists invented a moisturizer that mimics your skin's biology - Fast Company - June 22nd, 2017
- How the Biology in Every Single ALIEN Movie Fits Together - Nerdist - Nerdist - June 22nd, 2017
- WLU announces two new Biology programs | WTOV - WTOV Steubenville - June 22nd, 2017
- Open imaging data for biology - Phys.Org - June 22nd, 2017
- A Father-Son Bond, Born in Conservation Biology - SUNY Cortland News - June 22nd, 2017
- eils Krios microscope, opening new possibilities in biology research - Yale News - June 22nd, 2017
- Piecing together genetic histories of isolated populations - BMC Blogs Network (blog) - June 22nd, 2017
- Compromise on high school biology test passes first committee | The ... - The Spokesman-Review - June 21st, 2017
- 'Breatharian' couple magically defies biology, subsists only on clicks and BS - Mashable - June 21st, 2017
- UNF Spinnaker : Biology Professor Brews Up A Buzz - UNF Spinnaker - June 21st, 2017
- To connect biology with electronics, be rigid, yet flexible - Phys.org - Phys.Org - June 20th, 2017
- Biology teacher, Schreibvogel has wild side job | Local News ... - The Garden City Telegram - June 20th, 2017
- Biology Team Samples Drought-Tolerant Bacteria in Death Valley - Wesleyan Connection (blog) - June 20th, 2017
- The Maths of Life and Death: Our Secret Weapon in the Fight ... - Scientific American - June 18th, 2017
- Support Science Communication at Plant Biology 2017 - Biofortified Blog - June 17th, 2017
- Pierre Coulombe, Ph.D. to lead UM Department of Cell & Developmental Biology - University of Michigan Health System News (press release) - June 17th, 2017
- 'The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible,' says Camille Paglia - Washington Examiner - June 16th, 2017
- SUNY Potsdam biology professor warns motorists to watch for threatened turtles on North Country roadways - North Country Now - June 16th, 2017
- Rich Lenski elected associate member of the European Molecular Biology Organization - MSUToday - June 16th, 2017
- Local students wrap up a week of marine biology camp - WWSB ABC 7 - June 16th, 2017
- Senate would give high school seniors a break on biology test requirement - The Spokesman-Review - June 15th, 2017
- Five reasons we're excited by how structural biology is advancing cancer research - The Institute of Cancer Research (blog) - June 15th, 2017
- 18th International Congress of Developmental Biology (June 18 22, 2017): Hongyan Wang - PLoS Blogs (blog) - June 15th, 2017
- Revealing New Details of Cancer Biology with Automated Kinetic Live Cell Imaging - Bioscience Technology - June 15th, 2017
- Biology A-level students mark down exam board after yet another error - The Guardian - June 13th, 2017
- Leaving Cert biology: Incinerator and IVF on lively paper - Irish Times - June 13th, 2017
- 'Exciting biology' uncovers plants' high-fat diet for fungal benefactors - Phys.Org - June 13th, 2017
- The Exquisite Design of Human Biology - Discovery Institute - June 13th, 2017
- Retired biology professor's journey to carpet weaving - Daily Sabah - June 13th, 2017
- Synthetic Biology Expands and Grows - Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News - June 12th, 2017
- DePauw Mourns the Sudden Passing of Biology Prof. Bruce Serlin - DePauw University - June 12th, 2017
- UNCG biology research abuzz - UNCG Now - June 12th, 2017
- Uncovering the biology of a painful and disfiguring pediatric disease - Medical Xpress - June 12th, 2017
- The podocyte adhesome - Nature.com - June 12th, 2017
- Biology | Definition of Biology by Merriam-Webster - June 10th, 2017
- In Our View: Flunk Exam for Biology - The Columbian - June 10th, 2017
- CSU-Pueblo biology professor dies following crash - KKTV 11 News - June 10th, 2017
- Editorial: Kill biology, but don't undermine testing - The Spokesman-Review - June 10th, 2017
- FBI gets synthetic biology crash course at CSU - Source - June 10th, 2017