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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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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Conservation poetry: a field guide

Is there such a thing as conservation poetry? This question has been running through my mind since I talked with a Masters student who was doing a project on ‘conservation art’. I asked exactly what that meant. This led to an interesting discussion about different artists (primarily in graphic art or sculpture) whose work spoke of themes central to conservation. There are lots of examples, either of projects (the Ghosts of Gone Birds for example), organisations (such as the Artists for Nature Programme), or individuals (like the wonderful murals of my friend Rory McCann).

Yet while I can think of many artists whose work inspires me as a conservationist, I hesitate to say that my response necessarily matches their intention: the question for me is whether my feelings should be allowed to label their art? To me, artists do what they do, expressing what they see or hear in their heads. The notion that the resulting art, even if it portrays some aspect of nature, should necessarily be thought of as ‘conservation art’, seems wrong. Art just is. Its effects lie with the response of those who engage with it.

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Lament of a Lawn Person

Last weekend I spent the best part of two hours mowing the lawn. This is not my favourite task: it comes ahead of using the vacuum cleaner or cleaning the bath (just), but way behind washing up or mending a puncture. Maybe somewhere around answering emails: a necessary evil. Why? Well, for one thing, it is quite tiring, without as far as I can see being very good exercise: a walk would be better for body and mind, and cycling to work beats mowing hands down. Also it is unpleasantly noisy: at this time of year, English suburbia rings to the throb of powered garden machinery, a kind of evening chorus, as solitary males display their fitness by competing to be loudest, sometimes flying off in a speeding courtship circuit on sit-on mowers.

But the main reason I dislike mowing is not its unproductive consumption of time, its ineffective burning of calories or the noise. It is that it seems such a stupid thing to do. Grass likes being cut. The more you cut it, the more it grows. If you fertilise it, and drill holes in it to aerate it, and kill weeds, it grows even faster. The alert gardener mows it every week, perhaps more often: especially as Spring turns into Summer, when days are long, the air warm, and the ground still moist (in May in Cambridgeshire you can almost hear grass growing). This is the challenge to which the eager gardener rises: you cut the grass and make it beautiful; it keeps growing, so you keep cutting so it remains beautiful.

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Give Me Back My Greens

This is a hard time to be green. Since the financial crash in 2008, British government policy has been fixated with ‘growth’, and action for the environment has become profoundly out of fashion in the UK with politicians and media alike. No more dogsled rides for David Cameron to highlight climate change, and deep burial for his promise to run ‘the greenest government ever’. In November, the Sun reported that the Prime Minister had ordered aides to ‘get rid of the green crap’ to reduce household bills. It was, said the Daily Mail, all part of Opposition leader ‘Red Ed’s’ ‘green obsession’. In December, the Daily Mail ran an article on ‘fat cat Ecocrats’, identifying a ‘web of ‘green’ politicians, tycoons and power brokers’, profiting from these green levies.

But what does it mean to describe something as ‘green’?  The word has become so loosely used that its meaning is debased. Seemingly, it is ‘green’ to establish protected areas, restore ecosystems or protect rare species. At the same time, it is ‘green’ to oppose nuclear power, buy organic, promote renewable energy, oppose a new runway at Heathrow, try to control speeding on motorways, oppose housing development in the ‘Green’ Belt or build wind farms. Continue reading

Taken at the Flood

In southern England, January 2014 was the wettest since records began (the 1760s in the case of the Oxford Radcliffe Observatory).  Thousands of homes have been flooded, and large parts of the Somerset Levels have sat under water for weeks.  In a week of storms (‘stormageddon’, announced the Daily Mirror), a stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon was destroyed, cutting the only rail route to Plymouth and Cornwall. The Environment Agency was accused of ‘putting birds before humans‘.   In the Daily Mail, the Environment Agency was likewise accused of favouring conservation by failing to dredge Somerset rivers ‘and then spending £20m on bird sanctuaries’.

These headlines are perhaps no worse than we have come to expect from public debate about the environment in the UK, driven, as they are, by a combination of ignorance and outrage.  Indeed, by some standards they are quite sensible. A councillor for Henley–on-Thames (from the UK Independence Party), blamed the storms and floods on an act of God because of legislation to legalise gay marriage.   Meanwhile, The destruction caused by floods and storms have triggered that favourite British sport of pass-the-blame: victims blame the government for not doing more, the Local Government Minister blames the Environment Agency, whose Chairman replies by accusing politicians of ‘playing politics’ with the crisis, and for cutting his organisation’s staff. Continue reading

The Power of Evidence

It is hugely reassuring to suggest that decisions should be evidence-based. It sounds safe, sane, sensible. It seems self-evidently right. What else could they be based on? Guesswork? Hope? Prejudice? As a result the concept of evidence-based policy is on the ascendancy everywhere. Politicians love it, because it sounds so reasonable. Policy makers love it because it implies that decisions can be rational, free of bias, proofed against sectional interest. Scientists love it because it offers the opportunity to feed ‘sound science’ into the ears of policy-makers. So it seems an obvious fact that evidence-based policy is a good thing: yet as Sherlock Holmes comments in The Boscombe Valley Mystery ‘there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact’. Some caution may be warranted, for there are deceptive layers hidden by the term that are easily overlooked. Continue reading