Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Business of Creating Life in the Lab

Over the past decade huge advancements have been made in genetic engineering. Scientists and engineers have found ways to tweak existing dna to make more disease resistant plants, more weather resistant plants and a host of other modifications. One of the major benefits of this technological revolution will soon be showing up at the gas pump. Shell Oil recently announced that it will begin construction immediately on a pilot plant in Hawaii that will produce biofuel from algae. While the technology has been around for awhile, it only recently became viable as a competitive source of production due to new advancements in genetically engineering bacteria for opitimum performance, and more improvements in that arena are soon to come.

Now some are on the verge of creating new DNA from scratch. What are the implications of the created becoming creators? One may be the eventual death of the mining industry. Microbes are the most efficient chemical factories on Earth. We are only just beginning to recognize the potential of letting living organisms do the work that is now being done by humans and machines. With taylor made living chemical factories it may become possible to produce any chemical imaginable from sludge, garbage, exhaust and other inexhaustable resources. This may even one day extend to heavy metals.

Of course there's also the danger that some whack job will use the technology to create something sinister, like a killer virus or an organism that reduces plastics or metals to piles of goo. Once knowledge is in the public arena, you can't take it back. Such is life. The trade off in progress is perhaps less security.

This leads to another possible downside. Safety and security concerns have already reduced grade school chemistry to mixing baking soda with vinegar and watching it fizz. Youngsters used to get excited about things like chemistry and electricity while playing with their home kits. Now, many of those types of educational playthings are not available. Could we see a day when even the most basic of educational resources are banned from public consumption due to safety and security concerns? I hope not. Keeping us safe by keeping us ignorant is not a road I'd like to go down.

In my humble opinion, the benefits of knowledge out weigh the dangers. So, pass the apples and boot me out of the garden.

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