Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All Hail Venter, Emperor of Planet Earth!

Caesar Craig Venter tells us how DNA can solve all the world's problems, real or perceived: infectious disease, hunger, poverty, natural disasters, fuel shortage, global warming, etc, etc. in this lecture. It's not as bad as I expected - he certainly does a great job selling biology to the wider audience. The world could probably use an all-powerful benevolent dictator at the helm right now; Venter would probably be a good choice.

A lot of the ideas are grandiose but doable, although I'd like to hear more about how he thinks synthetic organisms can possibly replace fossil fuels to support the energy demands of industrialized civilization. I don't buy it. I'd love to see the world's oil-based economy converted to a bio-economy, but as long as there's black gold spewing out of the ground I don't see it happening. And when the oil does run out, I don't see how any biological energy production system can support civilization as we currently know it. Remember the Roman Empire? That was probably the last serious bio-economy of human history. How much better can we do?

Anyway have a watch and see if you can come up with better ideas for saving civilization.



(HTs: Palazzo, Hsien-Hsien)


15 comments:

Anonymous Coward said...

A bioreactor of synthetic bacteria turning one renewable fuel into another one? What do we have to gain from that? The intellectual property over the engineered bug will ensure a monopoly on energy, and it will just move the problem somewhere else. Where do you harvest your primary renewable resource (sugar)? How do you feed your bugs? The limiting factor always comes back to photons from the sun, and to use those you need area, and particularly area near the equator which has a higher energy density. Our rate of energy consumption doesn't scale to solar output without making some serious sacrifice, and no bugs can change that... Sounds more like a good money making scheme with BP than something that will save humanity, but what do I know...

Corey Smith said...

I don't know. I agree with those problems that just turning one fuel source into another has it's problems, but maybe there's a solution. I saw somewhere that algae might be used in a way that doesn't require cutting down forests for agricultural land. I think Venter is doing a pretty good job of going in the right direction.

Anonymous Coward said...

Yeah algae are very promising, if you culture them far in deep sea. Those areas are nutrient poor so you'll have to fertilize it, which is energetically expensive. In any case the bugs are only beneficial if they are more efficient than chemical catalysts to produce the fuel. It's not a solution in itself. They don't produce energy de novo. And the involvement of BP in the project suggest that it will rely on gmo crops and proprietary bugs. Venter failed to cash in on his sequencing project, but this one sounds like the motherload.

Bayman said...

Sun energy is the way to go. And there are lots of interesting way to harness it. Cyanobacteria can be grown in bags or what-not wherever you want.

The question is how would the maximal rate of energy production compare to what we get out of fossil fuels right now? I think it's very easy to underestimate the sheer rate at which we extract and consume oil to keep civilization going - we're not talking about just cars here, it's materials and chemicals all the way down to the fertilizers used to grow the crops that directly support human life....Could we even support the present world population's dietary needs without fossil fuels?

The Doc said...

The first step I'd take to protecting the world is banning 'terminator seed' technology.

The best way I've heard it described is from 'Tearitdown.ca':
"What kind of insane fucking pirate would actually program a sterile future into something on which we all rely for our survival? Honestly people, it’s like were asking for extinction."

Bayman said...

Actually you have it backwards. Banning terminator seeds would be a great way to destroy the biosphere. You obviously didn't listen to bayblab podcast episode 16 with Ignacio Chapela or pay attention to his work on the spread of transgenes through wild populations.

"What kind of insane fucking pirate would actually program a sterile future into something on which we all rely for our survival?"

Terminator seeds don't sterilize nontransgenic crops, so nobody's survival is being threatened here.

This is not to excuse overly aggressive business practices or corporate oppression, but blame the business' and people who are responsible, not the ethically-neutral technology.

The Doc said...

While I am not well versed in his papers on the subject, I am aware that these sorts of genes can go walkabout through native populations of plants.

It strikes me as a distinct theoretical possibility that whatever genetic manipulation of the seeds have allowed the terminator seed technology (assuming it is a genetic effect, and I don't know that for certain) can also wander into native populations. Would that not, theoretically, prevent viable seeds from those plants also?

I don't think this technology is ethically neutral, much as I don't regard the nuclear weapon as ethically neutral technology. I don't know that it is an accurate statement to imply that a technology is completely innocent. That is a very interesting sentence...

Bayman said...

That is a good point - a terminator gene entering the wild population would be a disaster - so the question remains as to how to prevent patented transgenics from destroying natural, public domain crops. But it is conceivable that there would be technology that could achieve this, but that would at the same time prevent the propagation of GMOs for repeated use.

The question of whether technology is ethical in the broad sense is also interesting. I tend to agree with you that any sort of weapon is not really ethically neutral, although perhaps this is context-dependent as well. Even a nuclear weapon could be conceived to have an ethical use, for example to destroy an asteroid headed for Earth. Likewise for any other weapon; a shotgun can be applied to an unethical bank robbery, or ethically to euthanize roadkill.

Aside from the weapons aspect of the example you cite, I think it is the nuclear aspect of the technology that is more analogous to the example of terminator technology. Like genetic engineering, nuclear physics has applications that obviously benefit mankind - nuclear power (when used safely) or those which obviously damage us - nuclear bombs. So yes, nuclear technology, like genetic modifications, are ethically neutral and should never be banned outright. This actually has the counterproductive effect of restricting beneficial applications (people who are motivated by the goal of benefiting humanity tend to respect society's rules), while unethical users (think North Korea) just carry on flaunting the rules. Instead of ineffective bans, we need to encourage positive uses of technology and hold accountable those who abuse it.

The Doc said...

Let me make it clear that I don't advocate for the prevention of any scientific research.

I do think that Terminator Seed technology and Nuclear Weapon technology are ethically equivalent. Just as there are nuclear free zones, there should be terminator seed free zones (infact, there are - New Zealand and Brazil, I believe are TSeed free).

The sentement behind the technology is sinister too.

I have to leave the computer... Will write more later.

Anonymous Coward said...

I don't see the threat here. Isn't the terminator gene incapable of spreading by design? It's like the ultimate Darwinian negative selector.

Bayman said...

AC is correct. A terminator can't damage wild crops.

Moreover, the terminator is nothing like a nuclear weapon. The terminator would be analogous to some sort of restraining device you put on a nuclear reactor sold for energy production that prevents it from being converted to a weapon.

Anonymous said...

Terminator seed? Hasta la vista, barley.

The Doc said...

That's not true. It can't damage annual or seasonal plants, but it certainly could damage longer lived organisms with multiple flowering seasons. Fruiting trees, like apples for example.

Pollen containing the terminator fertilizes a non-terminator wild seed and then forms viable offspring. While they will not reproduce, their pollen can continue to spread.

Where is that scenario wrong?

Anonymous Coward said...

I see what you mean, but if it spreads horizontally in pollen, it can only affect the fruit, and only one season at a time. And any fruit that isn't contaminated will have lots of progeny because there will be less competition. I guess it becomes more problematic if you envision a vector based cross-contamination. Say a virus which happenned to capture the transgene has the ability to spread from host to host and contaminate all the "germline" (which in plants can mean ALL the cells). Because the virus replication is decoupled from the reproductive success of the plant there is a possibility it could stay around more than one generation. Even so, I'm much more worried about other transgenes, the terminator seems to have the strongest protection against contamination because it renders its host sterile...

The Doc said...

Agreed, AC, but it is also one of the ones with the greatest stakes.