Guest post by Devang Mehta
This September, as part of their annual symposium, EUSynBioS will hold an Open Discussion on the topic, “Synthetic Biology and Environmental Engineering”, at the National Center for Biotechnology, Madrid, Spain. They will host experts in the field to talk about the science and the more difficult aspects of public acceptance and bioethics surrounding geoengineering and synthetic biology.
Geoengineering is a word that means many things to many people. Formally defined as the “deliberate intervention in the climate system to counteract man-made global warming”, for some scientists it represents a cheap and effective way to protect our planet from the ravages of climate change. To others, it is symptomatic of technological hubris: a grand, doomed plan to control every aspect of our ecosystem. Dig past the rhetoric though and you find a science that’s still in its infancy, being developed by scientists around the globe, almost as a last resort in the (now very possible) event that on-going efforts to avert climate catastrophe by reducing global emissions fail.
Current research on geoengineering is focused on either removing carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere or reducing global warming by reflecting more solar radiation away from the planet. Most proposals to achieve these goals rely on physical engineering solutions, cloud seeding for instance. A more expansive reading of “geoengineering” though, leads to several intriguing ideas on using synthetic biology to remedy the effects of intensive industrialisation/pollution on the environment.
I. Pale blue dot
In 1980, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed the status of living organisms forever. In Diamond v. Chakrabarty the court affirmed the right of inventors to patent living organisms that had been modified for some purpose. In this case, the patent was granted to a genetically engineered creature called the Superbug. The…