Synthetic Biology and the Metabolic Rift

Synthetic biology is an astonishing field. Its scientific ambition is breathtaking. According to the Global Network of Science Academies, it involves no less than ‘the deliberate design and construction of customized biological and biochemical systems to perform new or improved functions’. Synthetic biologists hope to create a new industry by treating DNA as if it was computer software.   Writing in Nature, Daniel Gibson observed ‘A biological cell is much like a computer – the genome can be thought of as the software that encodes the cell’s instructions, and the cellular machinery as the hardware that interprets and runs the software’. Scientists can act as biological ‘software engineers’, programming new biological ‘operating systems’ into cells. That is quite an ambition.

Synthetic biology  has significant implications for conservation, from the speculative world of de-extinction (whether the cloning of mammoth or the summer blockbuster of Jurassic World) to the idea of fighting wildlife disease (such as white-nose disease in wild bats or chytridiomycosis in amphibians), or addressing human impacts on land and ocean. It has the potential to transform the production of food, fibre and oils, the flows of materials through the urban-industrial system, and human ecological interactions. It is likely to be a seriously disruptive innovation in many fields, from medicine or agriculture to energy supply.

In a world of Promethean environmentalism, synthetic biology offers perhaps the perfect combination of possibility and risk. On the one hand it offers solutions to global sustainability challenges in food, water and energy. On the other hand, it channels environmentalist fears about the scope of corporate control of genetic knowledge and the development, patenting and release of novel organisms.

But synthetic biology is not just another technology. It has profound implications for relations between humanity and non-human nature. As Neil Smith observes, it extends human artifice – and corporate interests – right down to the level of the genome.   So a key question is, how should we think about it?

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Any Colour You Like, But Not Green

What are we to make of the news that the German car manufacturer Volkswagen has been cheating on emissions tests for diesel cars in the USA? The first cries of ‘disgraceful’ from the media were followed by announcement that 11 million cars had the ‘cheat software’. There were apologies, resignations and drastic impacts on share prices. Subsequent stories expanded the focus of concern from Volkswagen to the Porsche partner companies (Audi and Skoda), who announced that 3.3 million of their cars were fitted with the same software as Volkswagen to cheat US emissions tests.

Should this be a surprise? Not really.

First, it is not surprising to find regulators revealed as useless: dogs with neither bark nor bite – especially in bureau-Europe. It has been known since 2011 that diesel cars driven on the road discharged far more nitrogen oxide and particulate than official tests reported, and had significantly worse fuel consumption. The testing regimes have been criticized as ‘not fit for purpose’, especially the bureaucratic mess that holds in the EU. The BBC reported the UK Committee on Climate Change saying that between 2002 and 2014 the gap between official and real-world CO2 emissions for new passenger cars increased from about 10% to 35%.

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On the Conservation of Trolls

The strange and sad story of Cecil the lion (named for an imperialist, collared for science, shot on a private ranch outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe) has many lessons for conservation. The one I want to consider here is what it says about trolls.

Trolls are mythical semi-humanoid supernatural creatures. They were once widely distributed in northern Europe, where the winter nights are long and cold. They are grumpy, fearsome, nocturnal, and hide in (or turn into) rocks. They are traditionally carnivorous, ambushing passers by, particularly those goats unwise enough disturb the peace by trip trapping over bridges Trolls are widely believed to be extinct, but in fact they have spread widely as Norse folklore has become the staple of the fantasy industry. Terry Pratchett has contributed a great deal to our understanding: they turn out to be surprisingly good at maths, when it gets cold enough. Recent sightings include New Zealand, where dim-witted nocturnal trolls are reported to have attacked travellers, and taken to disturbing the peace by fighting. To Tolkein, trolls represented the dark side of the rural idyll of the Shire: large, unsociable and stupid, in contrast to the robust, bucolic intelligence of the hobbits.

As far as I know, there are no trolls in Zimbabwe. But their latter-day alter egos, internet trolls, seem very familiar with the place. The estimable Wikipedia defines an internet troll as ‘a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community… with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’.

The internet came down like a ton of bricks on the American hunter who shot Cecil, a dentist from Minnesota. The staid BBC noted that the global outcry led to Walter Palmer being ‘swamped with abuse and dark humour from web users around the world’. Among other things, someone created a fake Twitter account for his dental practice, with predictable results. The commentariat, on line, in print and on TV, went into overdrive, leaving no analytical stone unturned. Not all the comment was amusing: there were death threats, and vandalism at Palmer’s properties. He went into hiding, and faces prosecution in the face of the universal disgust and hostility of the online world.

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Rewilding as Process

To his many readers, George Monbiot’s book Feral has come to encapsulate the idea of rewilding.   His mix of gritty wilderness autobiography and sharp well-researched polemic is compulsive. His sheep-skepticism and his fluency (epitomized in the wonderful word ‘sheepwrecked’ to described Britain’s bare and long-grazed uplands) are a publisher’s dream, and it is unsurprising to find the book selling well on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Monbiot is a relative latecomer to the rewilding party in the UK. Its doyenne is the British Association for Nature Conservation, BANC. Since the 1990s, BANC’s journal ECOS: A Review of Conservation has been planting and watering ideas about the wild in conservation, and how to get more of it. BANC published Peter Taylor’s book Beyond Conservation, which set out the case for large wild areas in the UK, and for reintroducing carnivores to its busy pocket-handkerchief countryside. In 2011, Peter edited Rewilding, a collection of ECOS articles on wildlands and conservation values. The Autumn 2014 issue carried a series of articles on the wild and rewilding arising from the meeting Wilder by Design in Sheffield (the first of a pair: the next is in September 2015)

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Ecomodernism and the Anti-Politics of Prometheus

Prometheus is the man (or immortal, depending who you read) from Greek myth who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Like other tales from the classics, this one has been co-opted in many different ways. In this case, Promethean fire has most often been taken as symbolic of the development of technology and industrialism: Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ in all their forms, from eighteenth century English mills to twenty first century sweat shops.

Classically, environmentalism is painted as a reaction against industrialism, a Romantic call for nature untainted by human artifice. Reflecting another Classical trope, much Western environmental thought has been seen as Arcadian, comparing a dystopian urban and industrial present with an idealized rural past.

But not all environmentalism is Arcadian. In his 1992 book Green Delusions, Martin Lewis criticised ‘radical environmentalism’, and its calls for a return to a simpler, rural, way of life. He saw it as doomed to fail: ‘at present’, he said ‘radical environmentalism is a marginal movement that presents little threat to the status quo’ (p. 14).

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‘Fled is that music’: following the nightingale

One evening last week I listened to a nightingale sing. It was about 8.30pm, and almost dark, in a block of scrub surrounding rough grass on the edge of a wood. The sky was mostly clear, and as the light fell it seemed to be backlit, with the moon up and the first stars appearing. All very romantic, except for the lights of airliners, the fields of flowering rapeseed, and the vaulting arch of high-tension power lines overhead. This is lowland England after all, not Keats’s ‘melodious plot of beechen green’. But it was still a nightingale.

This was not a chance encounter. A campaign called Nightingale Nights draws attention to the decline in nightingale numbers in the UK. I had never heard a nightingale in Britain, and it seemed a good challenge.   It is not too easy. The website lists a set of places where you have a good chance of finding a nightingale. But they only sing from mid April to mid-May, and there are not many left. Numbers fell by 91 per cent between 1967 and 2007. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteer survey in 2012 and 2013 recorded 3300 territories.   With adjustments for areas not surveyed, this means there are 5,850 Nightingale territories in Britain, almost all in the south and east of England (with one hardy singer in Cleveland). How many singing males find a mate, and how many of these raise young, is anyone’s guess.

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The Wild Wood and the Railway

I’m sorry, Mole old chap, but it just won’t do you know’.

The Mole lifted his gaze from the golden coals of the fire. ‘What won’t do Ratty?’

‘There’s something going on in the Wild Wood. We haven’t seen Badger for months. I am starting to worry about him’.

The Mole looked round at the honest face of his friend, brow furrowed and whiskers twitching. Outside the light was already going from the sky, and the windows rattled in the wind. It was a day for firesides, and crumpets. With great fortitude he stood up. ‘Well’, he said bravely, ‘why don’t we go and try to find him?

‘Would you?’ said Ratty, ‘it’s no kind of a day for a walk’.

‘Of course it is’, said the Mole, moving now with bustling decision, ‘now where did I put my stick?’

Some time later, the Mole and the Rat drew close to the edge of the Wild Wood. It was not a place either of them liked very much: dark and forbidding, especially on a cold blustery November afternoon.

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