Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Urgent problems require urgent solutions – (no matter the cost?)

Photograph: showing the breakdown of PNp (a highly toxic derivative of TNT)

Rapid climate change, accelerated extinction rates, precipitated ecological degradation… our world is crumbling before our very own eyes. Whilst sceptics still abound, wallowing in their own apathetic complacency, no one can deny, for example, the transformation of the Aral Sea, once the world’s largest inland sea, into a barren wasteland – all within less than a single generation. Important fish stocks are, in some cases, down 99% from the 1970s levels. At the current trends, there will be no more virgin rainforest by 2030. By then, most coral reefs will have turned into bleached skeletons of their former selves and large swathes of agricultural soil will be too contaminated with endless arrays and combinations of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and nematicides to sustain ever increasing numbers of hungry mouths.
Current mitigation strategies are foreseen to be wholly inadequate in dealing with these pressing matters and most are serving but to delay the inevitable. Government busybodies talk of the stabilising of atmospheric carbon at 450 ppm by the middle of the century, yet this “optimistic” goal is none-the-less associated with a global 2°C average increase; enough to upset and indeed topple the delicate balance of already stressed ecosystems. The future of our planet is entirely dependent on the actions (or inactions) undertaken today. Waiting around hoping for the best is not an option. Urgency is paramount.
Solutions can sometimes be found in the unlikeliest of places. Whilst many people – the general public, government lackeys and moderate environmentalists alike – would baulk at the idea, the application of scientific knowledge in the field of genetics to combat rapid ecological degradation is valid, viable and altogether effective. To date, media scare tactics have enveloped the field of genetic engineering in a dark cloud of frankenstinian proportions. Whilst it is true that, in the hands of capitalistic multinationals with little or no ecological incentives, genetic manipulation has led to the development of fluorescent pigs and featherless chickens; devoted independent scientists across the globe are working furiously to develop techniques based essentially on the natural abilities of biological organisms. For example, bioremediation makes use of the natural biodegradative abilities of bacteria and fungi to break down extremely toxic, synthetic compounds including POPs, PCBs, CHCs and PAHs into their non-toxic constituents.
Molecular biologists are now able to pinpoint the gene systems which grant the micro-organisms these exceptional abilities. Genetic engineering allows for the bio-amplification of these abilities as well as the transferring of these between different species (the so called and much maligned transgenics). These extraordinary feats of scientific ingenuity could, for example, allow the identification of genes conferring the ability to break down and metabolize petroleum-based products in soil bacteria. These abilities could then be transferred into other micro-organisms at the site of environmental disasters such as the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill and speed up the clean-up process.
Whilst it is true that the liberation of transgenic organisms into the wider environment may provoke a number of negative side effects further down the line, it is a fundamental law of nature that all benefits must come with a cost. The power inherent in the application of genetics to help mitigate urgent environmental degradation must not be overlooked. In this, our 11th hour, we must fight fire with fire.                       
Glyn Barrett is currently training for a PhD in bacterial genetics at the University of Reading.

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