The double helix of deoxyribose nucleic acid was discovered in 1953 by Rosiland Franklin. Then, in what seems to be a tradition that many people will remember from group projects at university, the credit was stolen by her co-workers. Sixty-seven years later, labs across the globe are sequencing, slicing, splicing and editing the ubiquitous code of life.
At the Next Wave Network, we do not think editing human genomes so people produce less methane and CO2 is a great idea. However, using gene editing to improve sustainability and reduce anthropogenic (originating in human activity) environmental impacts is.
Glow in the dark fish and (maybe) genetically modified human babies are just a couple of the stories to hit the headlines in recent years. Sci-fi aquariums and sensitive ethical debates aside, what are the current trends and the potential future impacts of gene editing on our global environmental footprint?
The current king of the hill for environmental sustainability driven by genetic modification is probably (although we struggled to find a paper which accurately calculates this) food. By editing the genomes of soil-dwelling bacteria, companies such as Pivot Bio are modifying the soil micro-biome to more efficiently produce critical nutrients, such as nitrogen for plants. This means the plants grow much faster and more efficiently.
The added benefit is that it cuts out costly industrial nitrogen fixation required to produce fertilizers which then can result in eutrophication (massive and choking algal growth) events in nearby lakes, streams and coastal areas. You can read more about these impacts here, and read about the policy efforts to reduce them here.
As the war for land rages between food and fuel, this is a substantial calming influence and highlights one of the key factors which drives the explosion in gene editing, the need for land. As the global population continues to grow, the need to dedicate more land for biofuels and agriculture fuels the destruction of CO2 sequestering forests such as the amazon.
However, what about the land that we are wasting?
Landfill. The average human produces from 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms of municipal waste per day. In Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, over half of this is openly dumped, the rest of the world is not much better.
A few bacteria capable of decomposing plastics have been discovered, it will take a hell of a bug to catch up with the nearly 1.4 billion tonnes of plastic waste we are predicted to be producing per year by 2050. Potentially, using bacteria such as Pseudomonas stutzeri, we may be able to begin to tackle the issue, but realistically the impact of wild-type bacteria cultured then spread on landfill is likely to be too slow to keep up with the increasing quantities of plastic being produced. We need something genetically engineered to take on the mammoth task.
Thankfully nobody is suggesting we release swarms of genetically modified microplastic parasites into the atmosphere, which, hopefully, we will not… for the foreseeable future...
Nevertheless, culturing and harvesting the enzymes from genetically modified plastic degrading bacteria may well be.
At the current rate, we are a long way off mass production, but this could be the springboard for the next generation of green gene editing. If we manage to produce vats of microbes which convert plastic into common or garden organic compounds, we could engineer electricity-producing bioreactors from it.
Maybe one day you will get into a brand new 4x4 that is fueled by putting bio-plastics manufactured from biofuel hydrocarbons made from perfectly efficient crops using electrically powered machinery from a carbon-dioxide sequestering bioreactor facility.
Until then, stay safe, live well, live green.