Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jane Goodall, synthetic biology and the end of nature

I think for most people who own pets, and who don't view their pets as only utilitarian beasts or dress-up dolls, there is a sense of connection through them to the "natural" world. I think we recognize something primal in our animals which is missing or buried in ourselves and through them, we can still get a glimpse of what we have lost.

Perhaps this isn't even a conscious thing. I'm not suggesting that every pet owner likes to go camping or even likes the outdoors. This isn't some ode to running naked through the forest howling at the moon but I feel that a connection with nature, that which is outside the bounds of human civilization, is like a vitamin requirement. We might not even realize we need it and the effects of not having it may go unnoticed for years, even decades, but eventually, something inside gets sick and life becomes less alive and more just existing.

Or maybe I'm just off my rocker.

Anyway, a couple of news items I came across last week got me thinking about that stuff and they both have to do with human interaction with nature or rather the end of nature.

The first one is an interview with Jane Goodall, famed chimpanzee scientist, now playing a bigger role as a wildlife conservationist. Her interview on CBC's The Current is both sad and inspiring. She talks about how, through the hard work of various people and organizations, certain species which were at the precipice of extinction, were brought back. Unfortunately, those species are still highly endangered and of course it was mostly because of people that they were facing extinction in the first place but aside from that, Goodall holds out hope.

I wish I shared her optimism. Still, the interview is worth a listen even if it's only to hear the wise words from one of our most compassionate wildlife stewards.

The second thing I came across is an article from The New Yorker called "A Life of its Own".

You'll need a few minutes to digest this one but if you've got any curiosity at all about what will likely be the next big technological advancement on par with, say, the proliferation of computers or the invention of the wheel, this is an essential read. In short, we are at the cusp of being able to create life and I don't mean breeding Poodles with Labs.

There is serious talk about bringing back extinct, prehistoric creatures like woolly mammoths:

A team from Pennsylvania State University, working with hair samples from two woolly mammoths—one of them sixty thousand years old and the other eighteen thousand—has tentatively figured out how to modify that DNA and place it inside an elephant’s egg. The mammoth could then be brought to term in an elephant mother. “There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth—a shaggy, elephantine creature with long curved tusks who reminds us more of a very large, cuddly stuffed animal than of a T. Rex.,” the Times editorialized soon after the discovery was announced. “We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.”

There's been successful research into creating a malaria vaccine, artemisinin, using DNA combined from three different organisms and transplanted into the ever populous E. coli bacteria.

That research helped Keasling secure a $42.6-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Keasling had no interest in simply proving that the science worked; he wanted to do it on a scale that the world could use to fight malaria. “Making a few micrograms of artemisinin would have been a neat scientific trick,” he said. “But it doesn’t do anybody in Africa any good if all we can do is a cool experiment in a Berkeley lab. We needed to make it on an industrial scale.” To translate the science into a product, Keasling helped start a new company, Amyris Biotechnologies, to refine the raw organism, then figure out how to produce it more efficiently. Within a decade, Amyris had increased the amount of artemisinic acid that each cell could produce by a factor of one million, bringing down the cost of the drug from as much as ten dollars for a course of treatment to less than a dollar.

But synthetic biology goes beyond even that. The growth and advancing technology of synthetic biology rivals that of computers. The prediction is that in the near future we will be able to buy the building blocks of life and create life forms unheard of before. It'll be like picking out lego blocks and snapping them together. Yes, your kids will be doing it:

It is only a matter of time before domesticated biotechnology presents us with what Dyson described as an “explosion of diversity of new living creatures. . . . Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.”

Biotech games, played by children “down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds,” could produce entirely new species—as a lark. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” Dyson wrote. “Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.”


“Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology,” the editors of Nature—who nonetheless support the technology—wrote in 2007. “For the first time, God has competition.”

Much of the article debates the risks versus rewards of this technology. It's the usual arguments on both sides but for me, here's the most telling detail about where this science will take us. It's right at the end:

The industrial age is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by an era of biological engineering. That won’t happen easily (or quickly), and it will never solve every problem we expect it to solve. But what worked for artemisinin can work for many of the products our species will need to survive. “We are going to start doing the same thing that we do with our pets, with bacteria,” the genomic futurist Juan Enriquez has said, describing our transition from a world that relied on machines to one that relies on biology. “A house pet is a domesticated parasite,” he noted. “ It is evolved to have an interaction with human beings. Same thing with corn”—a crop that didn’t exist until we created it. “Same thing is going to start happening with energy,” he went on. “We are going to start domesticating bacteria to process stuff inside enclosed reactors to produce energy in a far more clean and efficient manner. This is just the beginning stage of being able to program life.”

That line "A house pet is a domesticated parasite” may just be a turn of the phrase but it gives the game away. Even as we are on the verge of creating new life, we mostly still demean and diminish the worth of the life which exists around us right now except in terms of how it can be of use to us as a commodity. It doesn't matter how advanced our technology becomes, we still remain selfishly and blindly human. Perhaps, before we look at how we can use this technology to create more stuff for us to consume and possibly take us closer to the precipice of extinction, we should use synthetic biotech on ourselves and evolve.


Anonymous said...

Some will lose themselves even more, but perhaps it didn't take synthetic biotech to make them that way. Some will retain their sense of wonder despite the technology.

Lynn said...

Hi Fred - I just wanted to tell you that, inspired by you, I have created a blog! It's just for a one-time event (cat hoarders, yada, yada), but it's been fun. I'd really like to do one like you, though I lack the intellectual prowess to pull it off. Mine would be more like "hey, here's a picture of a dog. You wanna' adopt it?" Something like that. Anyhow...thanks for the inspiration and thanks for what you do. It's great. Here's mine (it's my first. I'm learning). -- Lynn

Fred said...

That's great, Lynn! I'm coming over for a visit.

Marcie said...

A friend of mine was the photographer for a recent Jane Goodall book signing. She is apparently just as wonderful in person as I always thought she'd be. When I was a kid I wanted to be her when I grew up :)

"This is just the beginning stage of being able to program life.” That is scary to me. Obviously malaria vaccine is impressive but some of these advancements are a little too Jurassic park for me & they freak me out.

Muchadoaboutnothing said...

This sounds like Jurassic Park - we all know how that turned out!

Fred said...

Marcie, I wish I'd heard about Goodall's arrival in Toronto a bit earlier because I would've loved to have gone to hear her speak. She must be an inspiration to millions.

As for syn bio, I'm less concerned about the Jurassic Park scenario - because who knows, velociraptors might make for good pets though I imagine you wouldn't be able to bring them to the off leash dog park.

I'm more concerned about the grey goo scenario where everything on the planet gets devoured and converted to goo by some highly efficient, self reproducing, artificially created organism.

Anonymous said...

I listened to all of the Jane Goodall interview at work, what a treat. She is someone I have admired since I was a small girl, She's a true inspiration to me. Thanks for posting Fred


Lynda said...

Jane Goodall is definitely an inspiration to many of us.

Grey goo is scary indeed. Hopefully by then I'll be grey dust, lol!