I confess I was surprised to learn that neither you nor Andrew has heard of synthetic biology, considering Andrew’s job is at Berkeley, where a lot of the science is happening. Philosophy professors and scientists don’t sit at the same table in the cafeteria?
Actually, most people don’t know of it, yet it is going to save the world and our brilliant, destructive species.
Synthetic biologists promise a green, clean post-petroleum future where the production of important economic compounds does not depend on fossil fuels but on biological manufacturing platforms fueled by plant sugars.
A sugar-based economy. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?
This new economy will rely on “extreme –” a suite of technologies still in the early stages of development. Technologies sounding like the stuff of science fiction; biotech, nanotech and synthetic biology — all involving the engineering of living organisms.
It’s the building and redesigning of biological systems, changing the way they develop in nature.
The possibilities are mind bending.
For instance, we are talking made-to-order body parts! Heart gives out? You can get one guaranteed not to be rejected, nor to need a cocktail of daily meds to keep it working in your body.
No more dialysis for people whose kidneys are failing.
Eyeglasses and contact lenses? Who needs ‘em?
So you have a butt large enough to colonize? Is the only cleavage you can claim the one you sit on? Simply order up the bits and pieces you require to make you more symmetrical.
Already high-dollar deals are being made, like the $500-million alliance between BP and University of California.
These corporate alliances don’t just involve Big Oil: pharmaceutical, agribusiness, chemical firms, automobile manufacturers, forest product companies, and more are all putting out for synthetic biology start-ups.
Amyris Biotechnology recently signed a deal with Brazil’s largest sugar producer to turn sugar into commercial diesel within two years. No more stench of natural diesel insulting the nose; the highways and byways will smell like a carnival.
DuPont’s Tennessee bio-refinery can take six million bushels of corn and produce 100 million pounds of the key ingredient in a fibre that they say will replace nylon.
Not enough food at the picnic? Roast your clothes!
According to industry estimates, it takes a minimum of 200,000 hectares to provide the crop residues, or “wastes” to sustain a moderately sized refinery.
That’s a lot of land to be growing stuff that is not food, but advocates say there will be no “food versus fuel” conflict because feedstocks will come from cheap and plentiful cellular biomass such as straw, corn stalks, wood chips and dedicated “energy crops,” such as switchgrass, fast-growing trees, algae, etc.
If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it likely is too good to be true.
It could all happen, but there would be costs and given our human characteristic of greed, those costs would, as usual, be borne by the masses.
You know the masses; those of us who are not particularly greedy or have failed in being greedy on a large scale.
It is in the interests of those people that, internationally, scientists involved in synthetic biology are calling for more to be done to advance the field but at the same time asking for some ground rules to be put in place concerning the use of this science.
At least, there are 17 scientists who feel that way; the rest are holed up in their labs, funded by those really greedy folks who run things like BP, Chevron, Microsoft, Dupont and other Fortune 500 corporations, busy with the business of commodifying nature to the nth degree.
The 17 have issued a statement, saying, “The early 21st century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril. We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources”.
The rest of their statement promises to rain all over the synthetic biology parade.
Synthetic biology’s grand vision depends on biomass and if the sugar economy advances, all plant matter becomes potential feedstock and then — who decides what qualifies as agricultural waste or residue?
Whose land will grow the feedstocks?
Not surprisingly, it is the Third World countries, like Latin America and Sub-Sahara Africa, being regarded as places best suited for biomass generation, and which would naturally welcome this new prosperity.
However, some of those people in the developing world just don’t seem to recognize a good thing when it is coming their way. Camila Moreno, of Terra de Diretos in Brazil has this to say:
“Haven’t we learned anything from the disaster of first-generation agrofuels? Industrial agrofuels are driving the poorest farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands. Agrofuels are the single greatest factor contributing to soaring food prices.”
And Neth Dano, of Third World Network, says, “Once again, land, labour and biological resources in the global South are in danger of being exploited to satisfy the North’s voracious consumption and reckless waste.”
Where do they get such notions?
Can massive quantities of biomass be harvested sustainably without eroding and degrading soils and without destroying biodiversity? Can synthetic microbes be safely contained, controlled, and work predictably?
People at the top of the human food chain, the ones who kissed a lot of the bottom, will be fine; immortally beautiful in a land custom-made to suit their every whim and desire. No more of nature’s messiness to deal with; every living thing programmed to look and behave in a way pleasing to human beings.
That messiness could very well include the aforementioned masses; no real need for them once the world is organized to the specifications of the money men.
Of course, there is that wee question about containment and control….
Though many of us cannot imagine how grotesque and terrifying the results could be of something going awry, artists, writers and movie makers have had a stab at doing so, keeping us pleasurably horrified with their efforts.
If those “ground rules” the 17 scientists are asking for come into stern existence, synthetic biology could save our sorry asses.
It could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
It could end hunger and death by disease.
It could dramatically cut fuel prices and decentralize energy production.
It could make everyone pretty. And that’s just for starters.
I sometimes wonder about secret labs with secret experiments, scattered secretly around the First World.
There has to be some explanation for sharks giving virgin birth, celebrities giving birth to twins, and a man giving birth.
What happened to Harper’s paunch? Did it go to the same place as Sarah Jessica Parker’s mole?
The giant fish that are attacking people in the southern US, the new violence of our Yukon moose, the spruce beetle — are these successes or living examples of uncontained, uncontrolled and unpredictable experiments of synthetic biology?
Andrew should think of infiltrating the labs of Berkeley and getting the skinny on this whole thing. There is not enough information out here for us to get a grasp on the implications of this science. I suspect the scientists haven’t got a grasp on the implications.
Above all, let us be ready to support the 17 in their desire for ground rules. Let us hope their numbers increase.
Then we can start our own wish lists for a world that is kinder for everyone.
Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.