Sunday, February 17, 2008

Our Future Creations - Genetic Pollution

It seems that evolution is just not evolving fast enough to survive in the environment that we have constructed for ourselves. We pollute and consume at such a fast rate that other living organisms can not adapt to the changing world around them. Luckily, we are here to help evolution a bit and give it the boost that it needs to stay current and keep its creations capable of breathing and procreating. It is not very hard to do now that we have begun to get a good idea of what is going on inside of the biological organisms that we have been granted power over.

Now, this is not saying that we can save existing creatures from going extinct, but we are learning how to mix a few genes here and there to get something new that can survive. Right now we are just experimenting mainly with plants on a large scale and on a smaller scale playing around with making animals glow in the dark and such. Some scientists are engineering plants that can produce plastics, while others are mixing fish and tomatoes together to make a more shippable fruit and playing around with making "Roundup Ready" corn while even others have been working on creating genetically engineered plants that can clean up contaminated soil.

In a world destined for fossil fuel shortages, the ingredient of plastics, a plant that naturally produces the needed materials would be a great addition to the "life family" here on our planet. These plants would provide us with a great source of raw material to use in our soft drink bottles, plastic bags, toothbrushes, microwaveable packaging, toys and all those important things in life. Now seeing that the consumption of plastic is sky rocketing along with the need for farmland to grow the world's food, some tough decisions may have to be made if we are going to grow these plastic producing plants on a large scale. Where will these plants be grown and what other crops will we have to give up in order to have them? There is research on using natural soy plants for producing plastic but it is unlikely that they will be able to be used to manufacture all the different kinds of plastics needed for various materials.

Genetically modified food has been in the news for a long time now and has many activists rattling their protest signs and computer keyboards. In an effort to feed the masses and to provide a "pretty" and "hardy" product industrial farms would happily produce and deliver to you a modified plant with new features you may not be aware of. The benefits both commercially and to the overall consumption "needs" of humanity are now considered greater than the possible ill effects that could come from mass-producing modified plants that can easily cross contaminate neighboring fields and wild versions of the plant. If an unknown negative effect was released unto the entire population of corn or some other staple food such as rice or soybean the future of humanity could be put at risk. Man's knowledge and ability to comprehend the complexity of natural selection and the interaction between species has been shown repeatedly to be limited to the point of ignorance. Though we are making great strides in seeing the "bigger picture" of species interactions, we should proceed with caution if we are to proceed at all. Next up: Prozac Enabled Corn and Ritalin Rice?

Genetically modified plants that clean the soil through phytoremediation sounds like a great idea. There is a definite need to remove harmful pollutants from the environment, especially those that cause cancer and soon we may have fields full of modified Poplars happily soaking up natural and man made pollutants from the ground and breaking them down into less harmful substances and either expelling them out into the air or utilizing them within their roots, stems or foliage. There is nothing more beautiful than using nature to clean up a man made mess, but there are risks involved. The scientists leading the research are acting diligently to stop these brave new breeds of trees from reaching the population outside of the lab. When these trees are first placed in the world outside the test tube we will see if we have learned from previous mistakes with plants jumping the barriers that we put in place and breeding in the wild.

Further Reading:
A Future Visionary: Patricia Piccinini
Cash Crop of the Future
Cleaning the Soil with Modified Plants
Roundup Ready Corn
Invasive Species

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