Here are three headlines from today’s paper:
- Front page: “GOP Losing Grip On Core Business Vote”…for obvious reasons.
- Opinion page: “Immigration Losers” by Richard Nadler, President of Americas Majority Foundation, a Midwest public policy think tank (and I might add, a Republican organization in the mold of the Taft dynasty): “…Republicans need to repudiate… the immoral, uneconomical goal of mass deportation.”
- Opinion page: “The Future of Bioenergy” by Juan Enriquez, managing director of Excel Medical Ventures, Co-Founder of Synthetic Genomics, and Founding Director of Harvard Business School Life science Project.
The first article chronicles the takeover of the Republican party by the social conservatives and the virtual disappearance of the fiscal conservatives/social moderates from the party. The second decries the xenophobic and punitive stance of the Republican party with regard to immigration issues. The last one calls for innovative approaches, using biology to solve the energy and global warming dilemmas we are confronted with.
Quiz: Which newspaper was I reading?
- The New York Times
- The Washington Post
- The Los Angeles Times
Answer: None of the above. It was the Wall Street Journal, the bastion and mouthpiece of conservative (read: regressive) ideology, and a fierce opponent of anything liberal, such as fiscal responsibility and global warming. The editorial page had labeled the global warming issue as a liberal hoax, a figment of liberal scientists’ imagination, invented out of whole cloth and computer models.
But the purpose of this posting is not to harangue one particular political view. I want to highlight the salient points made in Enriquez’s article as to what Biology can bring to the table in solving our energy and climate problems. I had intended to write about this issue for a long time and this article was the catalyst.
A paradigm shift
One of the deepest thinkers of the history of science was Thomas Kuhn who, in 1962, published his seminal book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“. In it, he argued that we all share a certain view of the world (paradigm) at a given time, on which the science of the time is based. But then an insight occurs, which shakes the foundation of our old worldview and on which a new paradigm is founded. For example, until the 17th century, Anatomy and Medicine were based on the writings of Galen, a Greek physician from the 2nd century. For 15 centuries, scientists and physicians did not bother to dissect an animal in order to observe and verify the Galenic dogmas handed down to them since antiquity. But then, William Harvey, a British physician, had an insight: Why not observe how blood flows, which led to the discovery of the circulation. But more happened. The demonstration that Galen’s writings about blood flow were wrong led other scientists to question his other assertions, test them through direct observations, which led to the modern sciences of Anatomy and Physiology. In fact, the revolution did not stop there; people learned to view with suspicion “received wisdom” handed down by higher authorities. These momentous changes in worldview were a “paradigm shift”.
We are changing our worldview, again
When our agricultural practices, inherited from the time we began to cultivate crop plants about 10,000 years ago, no longer sufficed to feed an exploding population, we invented better plows, bigger machines, synthetic fertilizers, powerful insecticides. But this solution finally reached its inherent limitations. In the 20th century, the world could not feed the hungry multitudes of China, India, and Africa. Malthus was triumphant. But then another revolution took place.
We began to apply more Gregor Mendel and less Henry Ford. Plant geneticists, like Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, found that altering plants biologically was even more powerful and efficient than brute-force mechanical solutions. By altering seeds, harvest cycles, and climate range, Mr. Borlaug and his colleagues launched the green revolution. Poor farmers in China and India, who could never afford a mechanical solution, became net exporters using a biological solution.
The new worldview is that the cleanest and most efficient solutions to our environmental and energy problems will be provided by Biology.
Consider coal, the most abundant and most polluting source of energy we have. Hydrocarbons are, in essence, sunlight concentrated in plant, animal, or bacterial matter. Be it coal, gas, or oil, what we are extracting and burning is bioenergy concentrated in carbon. Molecular Biology, the science that launched a thousand medical advances, is now enabling us to convert coal into ethanol in the ground; no more mining, no more environmental degradation, no more millions of tons of carbon emission, no more global warming.
And how is this miracle going to be accomplished? By genetically engineering bacteria that will break down the hydrocarbons of coal (or oil, for that matter) and convert it into ethanol. This is eminently doable, the technology is already here—all we need to do is change our thinking from big engineering solutions to clean and elegant biological ones.
You ain’t seen nothing yet
In the August 3 2007 issue of Science, an article titled, “Genome Transplantation in Bacteria: Changing One Species to Another,” was published by scientists from the Craig Ventner Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. (In its previous incarnation as the Celera Corporation, it was one of the two teams that deciphered the human genome). The article begins thus: “As a step toward propagation of synthetic genomes, we completely replaced the genome of a bacterial cell with one from another species by transplanting a whole genome as naked DNA.” (underline mine)
The significance of this simple statement is hard for the layman to fathom. In fact, it is almost impossible to grasp the enormity of the consequences of such a statement. What it means is that it will be possible in the not too distant future to synthesize new organisms. Not preexisting ones—completely synthetic new species! Now think of it:
- Synthetic bacteria whose whole mission in life is to convert coal and oil into ethanol at a rate faster than we could extract the hydrocarbons from the ground. And much cleaner and enormously cheaper, to boot.
- Synthetic bacteria that will consume any pollutant or toxic material we manage to create.
- Synthetic bacteria that will consume prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and convert it into ethanol—a twofer.
- Synthetic bacteria that will course our blood vessels and convert LDL into HDL particles, and consume triglycerides while they are at it.
- Synthetic bacteria that will be able to sense glucose levels in the blood and release the appropriate amount of synthetic insulin in response.
Need I go on? The possibilities of this scientific revolution are mind-boggling. Our worldview will become totally biological. Sounds like science fiction or at least a distant dream? Not at all. In an interview, Craig Ventner stated that his team will have the first synthetic bacterial “species” in 5-10 years!
There is an ancient Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. Science will convert the curse into a blessing.