New Consensus provided funding to Isaac Larkin to produce the report below. The report was originally published on Isaac's Medium and is reproduced here. A shorter summary of this report can also be found on Isaac's Medium.
The World We Want
The climate crisis means that human civilization will dramatically change in the coming decades. These changes will either be forced by devastating fires, floods, droughts, storms, heat waves, famines, die-offs, and sea level rise; or they will be chosen, with foresight, to prevent as much warming as possible and make communities resilient to unavoidable climate shocks. Given that radical change is inevitable, how do we build a just, sustainable and resilient civilization? What might a good future look like?
In a good future, human civilization will use the next decade for a massive mobilization to combat the intertwined crises of climate change, political and economic inequality, and social injustice: a Green New Deal. We will minimize the energy and resource extraction required for every person on the planet to flourish. Humanity’s material flows will come to mimic those of a climax ecosystem, recycling and valorizing all waste streams in a circular economy. The production of energy, food, medicine and materials will be decentralized and democratized, minimizing the risks and resource demands of long-distance supply chains and increasing the resilience of all communities to climate shocks. Transformations to both infrastructure and the dominant culture will blur and erase the boundary between the ‘human’ and ‘natural’ world, creating “an economy aligned with life, not stacked against it.” Building this future will require biological technology.
What is Biological Technology?
Biological technology is the adaptation, cultivation or harnessing of life, or the products of life, to accomplish a goal. Humans have employed and relied on biological technologies for the entire history of our species, burning biomass to cook food and smelt metals, wearing animal and plant fibers as clothing, selectively breeding and domesticating plants and animals to produce reliable food, materials, medicines and muscle power, as well as constructing buildings and tools from wood. Industrial societies additionally rely on materials and energy from the refining and burning of fossilized biomass; transitioning our civilization away from reliance on fossil stores of bioenergy and biomaterials is a primary goal of the global Green New Deal.
‘Biological technology’ is a term encompassing a staggering range of practices and applications, so for the purpose of envisioning its relationship to the Green New Deal, it is useful to organize it by scale, and by application. Biology can be harnessed as technology at the scale of molecules (e.g. biomolecular engineering), molecular systems (e.g. metabolic engineering), cells (e.g. fermentation), multicellular organisms (e.g. selective breeding), ecosystems (e.g. agriculture), and even biospheres (e.g. geoengineering). Biological technology’s applications include the production of medicine (medical biological technology), food (agricultural biological technology), chemicals and materials (industrial biological technology), and ‘habitability’ or ecosystem services (environmental biological technology). These categories are fluid and the boundaries between them are permeable; for instance, cotton is an industrial textile product, but is produced by agriculture.
A Brief History of Molecular and Genetic Biotechnology
The six decades since the discovery of DNA’s double helix have seen the blossoming of molecular and structural biology, as both gene sequences and the shapes and functions of the minuscule molecular RNA and protein machines the genes encode are uncovered. In the 1970s, scientists first began to read the exact molecular sequence of DNA ‘letters’ in a gene (a process now called DNA sequencing). They also began to employ certain protein machines (also known as enzymes) in laboratory techniques to copy, cut, and glue together pieces of DNA; to insert those modified genes into a cell; and to make the cell produce the proteins encoded by the inserted genes. This process is now called genetic engineering. A 1980 Supreme Court decision allowing patents on such non-natural gene sequences, and on living organisms that contain such inserted gene sequences, spawned the modern biotechnology industry. Also in the 1980s, a method was developed to write (chemically manufacture) short pieces of DNA with any desired sequence. In the ensuing decades, as a result of government-led initiatives like the Human Genome Project as well as private research and development, the cost and time requirements of both reading and writing the code of life have fallen exponentially. The first human genome, unveiled in 2000, took over a decade and $3 billion to complete; today one can be sequenced in a couple of days for less than $1000. In 2000, fully synthetic gene sequences cost $4 per DNA letter, or $4000 for an average-sized gene. Today the price of synthetic genes is at least 40 times lower and still dropping. The ability to read and write DNA at will, combined with computational modeling and automation techniques, gave rise to the field of synthetic biology, which seeks to make biology more engineerable by designing and building complex, sophisticated biological systems safely and reliably. For most of the history of biotechnology, a relatively small number of species could be efficiently and precisely genetically modified, and these were used as models and platforms for research and applications. In the past decade, however, the development of the programmable gene editing technology known as CRISPR has made the introduction of defined genetic modifications into the cells of almost all types of organisms much cheaper, faster and easier. As the time, cost, and skill required to engineer biology has declined, efforts to increase public knowledge of and access to biological technologies have arisen, such as community biology labs, the do-it-yourself (DIY) biology movement, and the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition. There has also been an increase in efforts to raise public concerns about the spread of the technology.
Biological Technologies Today
Before considering the ways biological technologies could contribute to building a good and sustainable future, it’s important to understand how we already use living matter in our civilization; and how the systems that harness and manufacture biological technology are structured. The following is a brief overview of these topics.
Medical Biological Technology
- Biomolecular therapeutics are widely used.
- More sophisticated genetic, viral, and cell-based therapies show promise for treating cancers and genetic diseases.
- However, the biopharmaceutical industry is an oligopoly, keeping drug prices high.
- Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry systematically underinvests in vaccines, antibiotics and treatments for tropical diseases, because they are less profitable.
Today, biological technology has helped uncover the molecular and genetic basis of many diseases, and targeted therapeutics made from engineered biomolecules have become widely used pharmaceuticals. The cutting edge of medicine includes training the immune system to attack cancer or avoid autoimmune reactions; engineering both human and bacterial cells with genetic programs that hunt and kill cancer cells or treat metabolic disorders; and engineering viruses to deliver gene therapies into patients with genetic disease.
However, there are also serious problems with the biomedical industry. Its consolidation into a few corporate conglomerates has led to price increases for even off-patent biopharmaceuticals. The industry has boosted spending on sales and marketing while simultaneously underinvesting in research and development, especially for highly beneficial but less profitable therapeutics like vaccines, antibiotics, and treatments for tropical diseases. The new, more sophisticated cellular and gene therapeutics cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per treatment. Aggressive lobbying efforts have made lower-cost generic versions of treatments harder to produce both domestically and internationally.
Agricultural Biological Technology
- Crop yields have risen and the cost of food has fallen for decades in industrial societies.
- Genetically engineered plant crops are widely adopted.
- However, modern industrial agriculture is unsustainable and bad for the climate.
- Unsustainable practices include monoculture cultivation, soil degradation, widespread pesticide/ecocide application, and factory animal farming.
- The agricultural industry is an oligopoly that lobbies for subsidies that incentivize unsustainable practices.
In industrialized societies, the combination of selective breeding guided by modern genetic analysis with intensified cultivation practices has led to increases in the yields and decreases in the cost of both plant- and animal-derived food. A few genetically engineered plant crops have seen regulatory approval and wide adoption by industrial farms; the first genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption (a fast-growing salmon) recently received regulatory approval. Convincing plant-based replacements of certain animal products (e.g. hamburgers), including some that use genetically engineered yeasts to produce molecules that better mimic the properties of meat, have been developed and begun to penetrate the market.
Despite these advances, the modern food system is not sustainable. Subsidized by fossil energy, plant agriculture has developed in the direction of monocultures that maximize short-term yields and minimize labor costs, at the expense of long-term soil fertility and vulnerability to weeds, pests, and climate shocks. In fact, most transgenic ‘GMO’ crops on the market today are engineered to mitigate the weed and pest problems caused by industrial monocultures. Much like overused antibiotics, these practices are leading to the evolution of resistant weed and pest strains. Industrial animal husbandry is, if anything, worse. Factory farming is both a moral and an ecological nightmare, producing mass suffering, polluting runoff, multi-antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and a great deal of methane, which is the most dangerous greenhouse gas for near-term climate stability. Clearing of new pasture for beef cattle is also a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Control of industrial agriculture is consolidated in a small number of conglomerates with outsize political and economic power; perverse subsidies encouraging overproduction of a small number of monocrops and animal products are maintained through the industry’s lobbying efforts. The enormous amount of food waste sent to landfills by this system is also a significant source of methane emissions.
Industrial Biological Technology
- Biomaterials are widely used in textiles (e.g. cotton) and building materials (e.g. wood).
- Genetically engineered microbes can manufacture certain chemicals currently derived from wild organisms or petrochemicals.
- However, industrial biomaterials are often grown and harvested in unsustainable and climatically damaging ways (e.g. monoculture cultivation and old-growth deforestation).
- Industrial biotechnology is an oligopoly.
Although biomaterials have seen a decline in use relative to materials derived from petrochemicals (plastics and synthetic fibers) and fossil energy subsidies (steel and concrete), they still comprise a significant chunk of the material base of human civilization. Cotton in particular accounts for at least a quarter of the world’s textile production, while billions of cubic meters of wood are harvested for building materials and paper every year. On the molecular side, genetic engineering has enabled the construction of enzymatic pathways in cells that convert a source of microbial food (sugars, carbon dioxide, etc) into a desired output chemical or material. This metabolic engineering, combined with fermentation in multi-thousand-liter tanks, has enabled a subset of biotechnologically-derived chemicals to compete on price with (and in some cases replace) alternatives derived from petrochemicals, plants or animals.
However, industrial biotechnology also has major problems. Like industrially produced grains and vegetables, cotton is grown in monocultures that consume vast amounts of water, degrade topsoil and are vulnerable to pests and climate shocks. Demand for wood as a fuel and building material is a leading cause of old-growth deforestation, alongside slash-and-burn agriculture. Forestry management worldwide often relies on cultivating monocultures of crop trees that reduce biodiversity and are vulnerable to pests and climate shocks. Because of this, biological replacements of fossil fuels and materials are not always more sustainable. Oil palm plantations are particularly egregious: while the resulting palm oil can replace fossil diesel, animal fats, and certain petrochemicals, it is derived from monoculture plantations built by destroying climax rainforest ecosystems. Biofuels from corn ethanol, a significant industry in the US, require more fossil energy inputs than they produce and compete with food crops for water and arable land. Industrial fermentation of metabolically engineered microbes to produce a particular chemical still requires expensive investment to overcome the challenges of maximizing product yield, scaling from test batches to industrial-scale fermenters, avoiding fermenter contamination, feeding the microbes inexpensive and sustainable carbon and energy sources, and purifying the final product. Fermenting metabolically engineered microbes to manufacture useful and naturally-occurring biomolecules can economically displace poor and indigenous communities who cultivate and sell the compounds from their wild sources. Finally, like medical and agricultural biotechnology, the industrial biotechnology industry is highly consolidated into a few powerful conglomerates, albeit with a division between textile, wood, and microbially fermented products. The metabolic engineering industry in particular is controlled by large agro-chemical companies; most smaller companies in this space seek to partner with or be acquired by these giants.
Environmental Biological Technology
- Currently, no large private industry uses environmental biological technology for carbon drawdown or to supply ecosystem services.
- The rate of ecosystem conservation and restoration is much lower than the rate of ecosystem degradation.
There is currently no large private industry deploying biological technology to draw down carbon, recycle humanity’s waste streams, make communities more resilient to climate disasters, or increase and stabilize communities’ supplies of fresh water, fertile soil, green spaces and biodiversity. Governments in developed nations and some developing countries with thriving eco-tourism industries have led initiatives to preserve, protect, and restore wild ecosystems; however, these efforts have not matched the worldwide scale of ecological degradation. Culturally, an unhelpful dichotomy and distance between ‘nature’ and ‘human civilization’ dominates.
How Biological Technology Can Help Decarbonize Human Civilization**
In order to have a better than 50% chance of keeping average global warming below 1.5ºC, the IPCC estimates that human civilization will need to cut anthropogenic greenhouse emissions in half by 2030, and achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050. The following are a few examples of how biological technology can help.
Agricultural Biological Technology
- Plant-based and engineered cellular meat replacements could reduce worldwide meat consumption.
- Modifying animal feed and husbandry practices could reduce emissions generated by meat production.
- Bioengineering crops could remove the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
- Closed fermentation of food waste could capture methane for use in carbon-neutral heating or power generation.
- Changing cultivation practices could capture and preserve carbon in the soil.
- Engineering crops and changing cultivation practices to maximize local food production could reduce emissions from food transportation.
Food production is central to sustaining humanity, takes up an enormous land area, and generates a large and consistently underestimated quantity of greenhouse gases. The main agricultural sources of greenhouse gases are the production of meat, fertilizer, and food waste, as well as food transportation.
Reducing humanity’s per-capita meat consumption would greatly reduce carbon (especially methane) emissions, and increase ecological sustainability. Biological technology has already produced convincing plant-based replacements for certain animal products and is on track to produce more; scaling these products globally could have a significant carbon benefit, as well as freeing up large amounts of arable land and freshwater currently occupied by crops grown to feed livestock. Plant-based replacements of fish meat, if scaled, could help address overfishing and the depopulation of the oceans. In addition to plant-based replacements, meat grown from cultured animal cells is currently the focus of significant private investment. With considerable research and development, cultured meat could potentially produce low-carbon and animal-free replacement of foods that plant-based products can’t yet emulate, like steaks.
As well as reducing overall consumption of meat, biological technology can curb the emissions generated by meat production. A massive amount of methane is produced globally by ruminants (cows, sheep, etc). This methane comes from microbes that inhabit ruminants’ guts. Suppressing the activity of these microbes should suppress methane emissions. Blending 1–2% Aspargopis seaweed into cattle feed has been shown to do just that, reducing methane emissions from the cows by 99%.
The designed ecosystem within which meat animals are raised can also play a role in reducing greenhouse emissions: silvopasture, or the growing of crop trees within livestock pastures, both diversifies the income stream of ranchers and draws down and stores 5–10 times more carbon than treeless pastures.
The chemical production of synthetic ammonia fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen requires high temperatures, pressures, and huge amounts of energy (1–2% of the world’s energy supply). Moreover, overuse of nitrogen fertilizer on crops allows soil microbes to convert it to the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Some plants, particularly legumes, can self-fertilize by forming symbiotic associations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Genetically engineering all crop plants to fix nitrogen, or engineering nitrogen-fixing microbes to symbiotically associate with all crop plants, could reduce or eliminate these emissions, in addition to mitigating the environmental effects of fertilizer runoff. At least one biotechnology company already has a microbial product that partially replaces industrial corn fields’ need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Food waste generates large amounts of both methane and nitrous oxide when microbes digest it in a low-oxygen environment, such as in landfills or compost heaps. While open-air landfills and composting sites are therefore bad from a climate standpoint, directing food, human and animal waste streams into closed anaerobic digester facilities can enable the capture of methane for use in carbon-neutral heating and fuel. Organic carbon residues left behind after this digestion process completes can then be used to enrich agricultural soil, or potentially as a feedstock for fungi and metabolically engineered bacteria to produce materials and fine chemicals.
One of the largest global stores of organic carbon is in soil. Current industrial farming practices lead to a net oxidation of soil organic carbon and release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Changing those practices, for instance by reducing tilling and selecting or engineering crops to grow more and deeper roots — carbon farming — could make agriculture a carbon-negative industry.
Long-distance transportation from where food is grown to where it is consumed produces a great deal of food waste, as well as some carbon emissions. Engineering crops and designing the food system to produce a wide diversity of foodstuffs nearby any human population center can curb both waste and emissions.
Industrial Biological Technology
- Engineering organisms and changing cultivation practices to maximize local production of biomaterials could reduce emissions from transporting biomaterials.
- Replacing steel as a building material with compressed wood or other biomaterials could reduce emissions from heating and smelting.
- Replacing Portland cement production with engineered biomineralizing microbes could significantly reduce carbon emissions from building materials.
- Engineered microbes could help to replace the fossil-derived combustible fuels required by aircraft and spacecraft.
- Engineered microbes could manufacture many chemicals currently derived from fossil sources, financially undercutting the fossil fuel extraction industry.
- Biomining and biorefining with engineered microbes that sequester specific metals and elements could reduce emissions and environmental degradation.
- Deploying biomining and biorefining techniques in an extensive material recycling infrastructure could reduce emissions and environmental degradation from resource mining and extraction.
Cotton and other biological textiles grow best in regions with a particular climate, and must be shipped long distances to reach their target markets in other parts of the world. Local production of biological fibers and textiles, both by adapting plant fiber crops to a wide variety of climates and by microbial fermentation of biological fibers (bacterial cellulose, production of spider silk from engineered yeast, etc), will reduce these emissions. The same applies to biological sources of building materials (wood, bacterially produced cement, etc) and feedstocks for chemical/biochemical production: rapidly domesticating local source organisms using a combination of selective breeding and sequencing-guided genome editing, adapting the local environment to suit non-local source organisms, or engineering non-local source organisms to suit local environments, can all enable more local production of the raw materials of industrial civilization, reducing the carbon emissions from shipping.
The smelting and production of steel is both energy- and carbon-intensive. Recent work has shown that heating and compressing wood can greatly improve its mechanical properties, making it as strong as steel but six times lighter. Replacing steel and other building materials with biomaterials of equivalent strength could significantly reduce global emissions, especially if, like wood, those biomaterials also sequester atmospheric carbon. Other examples of carbon-negative materials include bamboo or cross-laminated timber for building, and prairie grass for fiber.
In addition to replacing steel, the emissions from steel smelting (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen gas) can potentially be captured and converted into biomass, fuel or fine chemicals by pumping them into fermenter tanks filled with metabolically engineered microbes that eat the waste gas. At least one company is working on commercializing this process.
Global Portland cement production is over 4 billion tons per year and accounts for 8% of annual human carbon emissions, because its manufacturing requires high heat and releases a lot of carbon dioxide. However, living organisms are able to produce hard, mineralized materials at room temperature and in water by converting atmospheric carbon into carbonate minerals like limestone. Harnessing biomineralizing microbes to replace traditional cement and concrete wherever possible with biological cements and masonry could therefore greatly reduce the energy and carbon footprint of mineral building materials. At least one company is working on commercializing this process.
It is clear that decarbonizing world civilization will require moving away from the internal combustion engine as a primary power source of transportation, replacing it wherever possible with electric motors and batteries charged by renewable energy (as well as hydrogen fuel cells, potentially). Greenhouse gas emissions from flying in particular comprise a disproportionate share of rich countries’ transportation carbon footprints. However, both high-speed aircraft and Earth-launched spacecraft are extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to power without a combustible fuel. In addition to building infrastructure to reduce the need to fly (e.g. bullet trains), the emissions from air and spacecraft can be mitigated by the production of carbon-neutral biofuels. In particular, fuels derived from cultivating and metabolically engineering organisms that do not compete with food crops for arable land and fresh water, such as seaweed and other photosynthetic algae, are promising.
Only ~2% of the average barrel of crude petroleum is refined into the precursors for the plastics, polymers, solvents and fine chemicals that are manufactured and sold by the synthetic chemical industry; yet this 2% is disproportionately lucrative, comprising ~25% of the barrel’s economic value. Deployed at scale, synthetic biology and metabolic engineering of microbes have the potential to both replace and improve on these products, as enzymes are capable of catalyzing more subtle and selective synthesis reactions than the best industrial chemists. The displacement of petrochemicals by biochemicals, combined with the displacement of combustion engines by electric motors, can together destroy the economic rationale for the existence of the oil industry, which requires massive up-front capital investment for extraction and refining that must be paid off over decades. Hastening the end of this industry and ensuring there is no profit motive for it to return can contribute to reducing global greenhouse emissions over the next century.
Mining raw minerals and refining them into pure elements, metal alloys, semiconductors and other materials required by modern technological civilization is ecologically destructive and requires large inputs of fossil energy (and therefore emissions). Many organisms have evolved or can be engineered to secrete proteins and small molecules that bind tightly and selectively to the atoms of particular metals and chemical elements. These biomolecular tools and the microbes engineered to produce them can be deployed in biomining and biorefining to extract, concentrate and refine particular elements, including rare metals, in a lower-energy and less environmentally harmful way. This could be particularly useful for refining and recycling these elements from civilization’s streams and reservoirs of waste.
There is a direct relationship between the scale of waste generated by human civilization, and the scale of extraction required to replace that waste with new goods and materials. This extraction is environmentally destructive and requires intensive fossil energy inputs; and as discussed for food above, the waste itself can be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions as well. Biological technologies such as biomining, biorefining and fermentation could contribute to the recycling and valorization of these waste streams; as well as the remediation of toxic or ecologically destructive wastes.
Environmental Biological Technology
- Protecting and restoring wild ecosystems could draw down hundreds of gigatons of atmospheric carbon.
- Engineered species and ecosystems could draw down and store carbon more quickly and stably.
- Engineering ecosystem-scale microbiomes could reduce global methane emissions.
- Cultivating coastal seaweed and seagrass ecosystems could draw down carbon while serving multiple useful functions.
- Biological technology could, if deemed absolutely necessary by an international democratic process, be deployed in geoengineering.
To stay below 1.5ºC of planetary warming, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates that humanity will not only need to cut its global greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050; but will need to become carbon negative, pulling gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year from 2050 to the end of the century. While there has been and should be research into physical and chemical methods of carbon capture and sequestration, biology is the only technology with the proven ability, through photosynthesis, to cheaply draw down and sequester atmospheric CO2 using solar power. Over the next century, this is perhaps the most important ecosystem service humans should protect and foster in the living world.
There are myriad ways to cultivate atmospheric carbon drawdown by living things. Transforming land use to protect and restore wetlands, forests, prairies and other high-carbon ecosystems, including by respecting treaties with and returning land to indigenous peoples, can draw down hundreds of gigatons of carbon while protecting thousands of gigatons already stored in these environments. In the coming decades, species and ecosystems could be genetically engineered to store carbon more quickly and stably, for instance by engineering woody plants to grow faster or to enzymatically convert organic carbon to inorganic carbonate minerals. Cultivation and manipulation of ecosystems’ microbiomes could also be used to reduce the greenhouse effect, for instance by suppressing the growth of methanogenic microbes in rice paddies, wetlands, and any landfills, sewage treatment plants or livestock waste reservoirs not contained by methane-capturing anaerobic digesters. Restoring and developing new coastal seaweed and seagrass ecosystems can draw down carbon while serving as a potential material feedstock and supporting ocean animal biodiversity. If deemed necessary by a democratic and international process, more drastic biosphere-scale carbon drawdown solutions could include protecting arctic permafrost by converting large swathes of northern boreal forests to colder and more carbon-negative grassland, fertilizing the oceans to stimulate the growth of photosynthetic diatoms that then sink and sequester their carbonate shells, and engineering ocean-going photosynthetic cyanobacteria to either secrete degradation-resistant carbon polymers or to resist and outgrow the viruses that naturally check cyanobacteria populations.
How Biological Technology Can Help Build a Climate-Resilient Civilization
Even if humanity mobilizes to rapidly eliminate greenhouse emissions, roughly 1ºC of global warming has already occurred, and some extra warming is locked in by previous emissions already in the atmosphere. It is therefore imperative for us to not only decarbonize civilization, but also rebuild it to be as resilient as possible in the face of inevitable climate shocks. The following are a few ways biological technology can help.
Medical Biological Technology
- DNA sequencing technology could enable rapid detection and diagnosis of many diseases.
- Engineered cell-free genetic circuits could enable inexpensive and decentralized detection of pathogens and environmental toxins.
- Community, in-hospital bioreactors could enable inexpensive local production of biomedicines.
- Both medicines and microbes that produce them could be engineered for dry storage, making them stable during power outages and easy to distribute.
- Improved vaccines, antibacterial and antiviral biologics, and gene drives could greatly reduce both local and global risks from infectious disease.
The climate crisis is also a health crisis. Particulate and aerosol pollution from fossil emissions and wildfires increase cancer, athsma, miscarriage and heart attack rates, as well as vulnerability to respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Depending on how hot the world gets, more frequent and intense heat waves could potentially kill millions of people every year. Higher global temperatures mean that disease vectors like mosquitoes and ticks expand their ranges and increase their activity. Climate disasters like Hurricane Maria kill people not only through physical injury, but also by cutting power to hospitals and disrupting supplies of food, medicine and other essentials. Rising sea levels and more intense flooding have the potential to disrupt the many toxic waste sites around the world, exposing local and waterside communities to their contents. Airborne ash and soot from wildfires can also contaminate water supplies with heavy metals and carcinogens. Biological technologies can help to both detect and mitigate these health risks.
DNA sequencing technology can be deployed to detect and diagnose infectious diseases and cancer, and to guide which targeted chemical or biological therapeutics will be most effective for each patient. DNA sequencers can be made small and cheap enough to use wherever the patients are, whether in a hospital, a home, or a field medical clinic.
Synthetic biology enables the design of cell-free genetic circuits that can be stored at room temperature dried out on pieces of paper, and can detect pathogens, heavy metals, pesticides, and theoretically any other molecules or organisms of interest. The low cost and simple visual readout of these tests could enable people to regularly test their own water supplies and flag, for instance, dangerous levels of lead from decaying pipe infrastructure, or contamination from wildfire smoke.
The development of community or in-hospital bioreactors could enable the rapid local production of biomedicines even when supply chains are unreliable. Such locally manufactured medicines could also be cheaper than, or at least provide a check on the price of, their centrally manufactured counterparts. The addition of biochemical desiccation protectants could enable both medicines and medicine-producing engineered microbes to be dried out and stored without refrigeration, so that even long-term loss of electrical power does not lead to loss of medications. Both local production and the elimination of most refrigeration requirements could greatly simplify and reduce the cost (both financial and energetic) of delivering biomedicines, facilitating their distribution to low-income and relatively inaccessible parts of the world.
Properly developed and deployed, biological technology offers the potential to simply take infectious disease off the table as a major concern. Better vaccines guided by insights into the structures of pathogen proteins can train the immune system to more forcefully attack all strains of an infectious disease. Custom proteins can be designed or evolved to bind and block any toxin or receptor-binding proteins needed by a pathogen to maintain or transmit the infection. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be countered by cocktails of engineered phages (bacterial viruses) or other microbes tailored to seek out and destroy them. For particularly dangerous and recalcitrant vector-borne diseases, the vectors themselves can be modified. For instance, mosquito species carrying malaria, dengue, or yellow fever can be genetically engineered to be either sterile or inhospitable to the pathogen. This modification can potentially be spread through the entire mosquito population with a self-copying CRISPR gene drive.
Agricultural Biological Technology
- Diversification and transition away from monoculture cultivation could make agriculture more resilient to climate shocks.
- Genetic engineering to rapidly transfer desirable yield traits from monoculture crop cultivars to varieties that thrive in local microclimates could enable more local food production, reducing agricultural supply chains’ vulnerability to climate shocks.
- Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering of crops could increase their productivity, nutrient content, and capacity to thrive in a changing climate.
- Both polyculture cropping and genetic engineering could reduce or eliminate modern agriculture’s reliance on pesticides and ecocides.
One of the scariest aspects of the climate crisis is its potential impact on the food supply. Shifting weather patterns, rising seas, and shocks from heat waves, droughts, and floods all threaten crop yields, while higher atmospheric CO2 makes plants less nutritious. Higher temperatures also mean the spreading and increased activity of agricultural pests, threatening crops. Moreover, climate disasters threaten transportation and supply lines, making net-food-importing nations and regions vulnerable to shortages. Biological technologies can and must be used to fortify human civilization against these risks.
Since monoculture yields are particularly vulnerable to sudden changes in their environment, it will be important to diversify the crops and crop varieties that make up the majority of the food supply. Crop monocultures predominate in part because those varieties have been extensively domesticated and bred to make them high yielding and easily harvestable. However, alternative polyculture and permaculture cropping systems, including fruit and nut tree intercropping with herbaceous annual or perennial crop plants, can achieve similar food yields, provided the right up-front capital and training investment.
Modern genetic engineering techniques can contribute to increasing crop diversity without sacrificing yield. Desirable traits found in the most intensively planted cultivars can be transferred to others, creating more genetically diverse varieties much more quickly through gene editing than by traditional cross-breeding techniques. Such genetic editing techniques even offer the possibility of rapid domestication of completely wild plant species into agricultural crops well-suited to their local climate.
In addition to transferring existing desirable traits between varieties of the same species, genetic engineering and synthetic biology can create and transplant whole metabolic pathways and genetic modules into crops from other species. In this way, crop plants that use less-efficient C3 photosynthesis metabolism (e.g. rice) could be boosted to the efficiencies and yields of C4 photosynthetic crops (e.g. corn). In addition to yield improvements, crops can be metabolically engineered for higher vitamin and nutrient content; for instance, rice has been engineered to produce vitamin A in its kernels (Golden Rice). Genetic modules for heat and drought resistance, decreased water requirements, tolerance of salt and soil flooding, and even conversion from shallow-rooted annual growth to deep-rooted perennial growth could make crops and the communities they feed much hardier in the face of climate shocks, in addition to expanding the total global area of potentially arable land.
Polyculture cover-cropping techniques combined with genetic engineering for pest resistance could potentially obviate the need for weed- and pest-killing ecocides which can harm soils, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and human health.
Designing variety into agricultural ecosystems and engineering crops to adapt to a wide range of climates could enable the robust growth of satisfyingly diverse foodstuffs much closer to the communities that consume them. As with medicine, such local production mitigates risks from climate-disrupted supply chains.
Industrial Biological Technology
- Bioproduction of building materials, textiles, and fine chemicals from local and inexpensive feedstocks reduces the need for long supply chains vulnerable to political and climatic instability.
- Recycling and valorizing humanity’s material waste streams using biological technologies could reduce the need for raw materials and increase communities’ sustainability and resilience.
World civilization’s production of goods and materials is highly unevenly distributed, and the long supply chains that deliver products from their manufacturing sites to their destinations are vulnerable to geopolitical instabilities and climate shocks. As with medicines and food, biological technology can be deployed to more locally produce goods and materials from readily available, inexpensive and ecologically harmless feedstocks (in the ideal case, sunlight, seawater and air). As discussed above, biological technology can also contribute to the efficient recycling, valorization, and reuse of waste streams as feedstocks for other goods and materials. To the extent that these technologies can be deployed and distributed at scale, they will increase the resilience and sustainability of all human populations in the face of climate shocks.
Environmental Biological Technology
- Ecosystem services could be cultivated around areas of human habitation to reduce the impact of storms and floods while preventing soil runoff.
- Ecosystem services could be cultivated within population centers to filter pollution, lower temperature, absorb rainwater, and lower human stress levels.
- Synthetic biology and genetic engineering could enable other ecosystem services, such as water desalination.
Many of the threats to human health and community stability posed by climate change can be mitigated by biological ecosystem services. In the areas surrounding human habitation, wetlands and coastal mangrove forests can buffer storm surges and absorb floodwaters, while forests and other ecosystems with deep-rooted perennial plants prevent landslides, soil runoff and floods. Trees and green ecosystems cultivated extensively throughout population centers (forming forest or garden cities) benefit the health and habitability of these communities in numerous ways, including by filtering particulate pollution from the air, lowering the overall temperature of urban centers, absorbing and storing water from heavy rains, and lowering the stress levels of human inhabitants, because people generally enjoy being amongst beautiful living things.
Biology can also potentially be engineered to increase its capacity for ecosystem services. For instance, mangrove trees are able to obtain the freshwater required for their growth by filtering the salt from seawater with their roots. Synthetic biologists have recently engineered this ability into the small model plant Arabidopsis, causing it to desalinate seawater in its roots and secrete tiny droplets of freshwater out of its leaves. More research and development in this direction could potentially produce tidal plant ecosystems capable of meeting some of the food and freshwater requirements of coastal communities.
Concerns About Biological Technology
While biological technology could contribute much to decarbonization and a Green New Deal, many concerns have been raised, often by environmentalist and indigenous communities, about certain biological technologies. The following are a few of these concerns.
- Corporate oligopolies in every sector of biological technology employ destructive, unsustainable practices and have little democratic accountability.
- Agrochemical companies that have commercialized genetically engineered crops have historical and ongoing records of denying the health and ecological damage caused by their chemical products.
- The military is a major funder of synthetic biology research.
- Patents on biological technology are both morally objectionable to some, and a barrier to rapid innovation at the cutting edge of bioengineering.
- Some biological technologies could potentially enable biosecurity threats, such as the production or engineering of pathogens.
- Biotechnology research and industry is highly concentrated in a small number of urban centers, with much of the public alienated from decisions around and production of these technologies.
- Treating living things merely as a resource to be extracted or a substrate to be engineered raises moral objections from many, and contributes to unsustainable practices in biological technology industries.
The political mobilization required to pass and implement the Green New Deal is being led, as it should be, by frontline, environmentalist, and indigenous communities and activists. However, environmentalist and indigenous practitioners of biological technology are deeply skeptical of industry, and with good reason. Across every sector, biological technology is concentrated under the control of a few large corporate conglomerates. Many of these corporate actors practice unsustainable agriculture, log old-growth forests, or charge exorbitant prices for even generic biomedicines. They have little accountability to those impacted by these practices, due to their corporate structure as well as their financial and political power.
Environmentalist and indigenous practitioners can also be deeply skeptical of specific forms of biological technology practiced by industry and academia, particularly at the molecular and genetic scale. This skepticism grows at least partly from concerns about the corporate actors that first commercialized products using these techniques. The first company to commercialize a genetically engineered crop for human consumption was also the same chemical company that manufactured, sold, and denied the negative health and ecological effects of DDT and PCBs, as well as manufacturing Agent Orange and helping to poison the ecosystems and people of large swathes of southeast Asia during and after the Vietnam war. Purely from a historical perspective, the agrochemical conglomerates that control much of the agricultural and industrial biotechnology sectors have proven themselves untrustworthy when it comes to their own statements about the safety of their products.
Concerns about molecular and genetic biotechnologies also stem from the funding sources for this research. Roughly half of all academic synthetic biology research in the United States, as well as a significant amount of private industrial research, is funded by the military. While none of this research focuses on developing bioweapons, it is a problem that so many scientists in these fields must write grant applications about how their projects could tangentially improve ‘warfighter effectiveness’ or counter some foreign adversary’s attack. And for communities that have been the target of imperial and colonial violence by Western militaries, such funding degrades trust and raises reasonable suspicions about the technologies being developed.
Additionally, there are concerns about how intellectual property is applied to biology. One of the foundations for the biotechnology industry is the ability to patent biomolecular and genetic tools, as well as living organisms modified with those tools. Patents grant 20 years of monopoly control over the manufacturing and use of products. They are supposed to financially incentivize innovation and commercialization by enabling the patent holders to charge high prices for the sale and use of valuable technology, and to promote public disclosure of useful innovations (as opposed to hiding them as trade secrets) by protecting smaller and less powerful inventors from having their ideas stolen and copied by large and powerful corporate competitors. However, many communities have moral and cultural concerns about patenting living things. Moreover, the thicket of patents on every commercialized tool of molecular biotechnology tends in practice to benefit the largest and wealthiest corporate actors, which can afford armies of patent lawyers to license or contest the patents of the biotechnologies they want to use. Biotechnological patent thickets actually inhibit innovation in newer sectors like synthetic biology, which employ a large number of genetic parts in combination to design highly complex and sophisticated biological systems. The burden of obtaining licenses for all the parts in a synthetic biological system can be prohibitive, preventing what could be highly useful tools and products from being researched or deployed. Additionally, research and development of sectors of biological technology that cannot be patented, like the combination of organisms into polyculture food ecosystems or the development and deployment of ecosystem services without using genetic engineering, are systematically underfunded because private investors cannot extract monopoly profits from them. It may be impossible to extract significant private profits from some existing or potential types of biological technology, although they would be highly beneficial to humanity and the world. These technologies have been and will be left ignored and undeployed by private industry.
Many are concerned that even biotechnological tools initially developed to benefit the world can be twisted in dangerous ways. The biosphere contains deadly viruses, pathogenic bacteria, and myriad genes for toxic venom or poison enzymes. If manipulating and synthesizing DNA gets cheap enough in the next few decades, what stops a bad actor from printing smallpox in a garage and kicking off a local epidemic or global pandemic? What stops someone from deploying, intentionally or not, a CRISPR gene drive that wipes out a species or otherwise negatively alters a particular ecosystem, either locally or worldwide? Many are wary of the hubris that accompanies the development and deployment of technologies with such potential capabilities.
Many of the above concerns are reinforced by both cultural and geographic distance between the communities raising the concerns and the centers of biotechnological production. At least in the United States, the molecular and genetic biotechnology industry is concentrated in a handful of cities, alongside the largest centers of academic research. Outreach efforts to the public have historically focused on ‘education,’ which in practice has meant attempts to debunk scientifically inaccurate criticisms or fears of biotechnology without addressing underlying critiques about the economic structure of the industry or the sources of its funding, and without the possibility for the public to engage and tinker with the technology for themselves. This alienation from the means of biotechnological production and decision-making about biotechnology’s deployment understandably does not inspire confidence in many communities that these technologies will be put to good use.
Finally, many in both the environmentalist and indigenous communities have concerns about treating life and its products as merely a substrate to be engineered or a resource to be extracted. Cultural failure to understand, respect, and appreciate the gifts, services, and lessons humanity receives from other living organisms and ecosystems, along with the mistaken belief that humans and modern civilization are somehow separate from or superior to ‘nature,’ underpin much unsustainable extraction and the destruction of the living world. Cruelty or indifference to the suffering of nonhuman organisms, their ecosystems, and indigenous communities living within those ecosystems stems in large part from a failure to recognize and feel humanity’s kinship to, place within, and responsibility for the entire living world. These cultural forces can lead to negative side-effects of even well-intentioned biotechnology, such as when the metabolic engineering of a natural product, ostensibly to reduce the environmental impact of harvesting it, undercuts an indigenous economy based on cultivating wild sources of that same product.
How We Could Practice Better Biological Technology
Humanity’s mobilization to combat the climate crisis can be a catalyst for transforming our relationship to the living world and technologies derived from it. The following are a few ways we could improve the practice of biological technology through such a Green-New-Deal-style mobilization, incorporating and addressing the concerns raised above.
- We could democratize, decentralize, and demilitarize funding, production and control of biological technologies.
- We could transform subsidies for agriculture and other sectors of biotechnology to favor diverse and local production of food, medicine and materials.
- We could provide funding for developing and deploying highly beneficial but unprofitable biological technologies, such as ecosystem services and vaccines
- We could both mandate and fund open-source biological technologies, reducing patent thickets’ inhibitions on innovation and reducing moral concerns about patenting life
- We could steer the development of bioengineering toward systems and technologies that make community monitoring for biosecurity threats easier, and private production of pathogens harder
- We could fund art, teaching, and cultural exchange programs to expand, unite, and diversify the community of biological technology practitioners.
- We could transform the way people think about and interact with living things, erasing the artificial dichotomy between the ‘human’ and ‘natural’ worlds.
We could break up the biotechnological conglomerates and oligopolies and fund many locally controlled centers of research and production for biological technology (a Bio Belt across the country, for instance). This could decentralize and democratize decision-making power about these technologies, increasing trust and adoption by allowing communities to engage, tinker, and play with the technology on their own terms. It could also go some way towards addressing the historic wrongs and injustices committed by the conglomerates.
We could transform and shift systems of agricultural subsidies, that currently incentivize overproduction of monoculture crops, toward systems that invests in and reward biodiverse, sustainable and local food production.
We could transfer much of the funding for biological technologies from the military to civilian departments and agencies. Increasing the public transparency and democratic accountability of the technology’s funding sources can increase trust in and adoption of the technology.
We could massively increase public funding for both research into and distribution and deployment of biological technologies. In doing so, we could foster research into and development of highly beneficial yet unprofitable biological technologies, such as those that provide ecosystem services, that could then be deployed and managed by local communities.
By placing highly useful but currently patented biological technologies in the public domain and attaching disclosure and open distribution requirements to public biotechnology funding, we could address moral and cultural concerns about the patenting of life, cut through the patent thickets inhibiting synthetic biology, and foster a public and industrial ecosystem of open-source biological technology that rewards sharing and distributing novel innovations rather than enclosing them in restrictive intellectual property rights. Making biotechnological innovations open-source would also foster their distribution and deployment around the world, addressing many current injustices and disparities in international access to much-needed biomedicines and other valuable biological technologies.
We could encourage the democratization of biological technology while simultaneously steering it away from being twisted to potentially dangerous and harmful ends. For instance, completely subsidizing the synthesis of synthetic DNA at publicly controlled centers that screen all requested sequences for similarity to dangerous pathogen and toxin genes could allow many more people to explore building useful and beautiful things with molecular biology, while also reducing the incentive for entrepreneurs to develop desktop gene printers that make screening for pathogen gene synthesis much more difficult. Targeted investment in technologies for rapid toxin and pathogen detection, as well as the development of rapidly deployable, customized biomedical countermeasures to all known pathogens and biotoxins, would also help ensure that the twisting of biological technology for harmful ends doesn’t get ahead of the technology for finding and stopping it. Moreover, by fostering an open-source biotechnological culture that encourages sharing and disclosure, we could make efforts to twist biotechnology to harmful ends much more difficult to hide or privately develop.
Through funding of art, teaching, and cultural exchange programs, we could transform society’s relationship to biology as technology. Highlighting indigenous and marginalized communities’ stories about their relationship to living things and their use of biological technologies could both change the way the scientific and industrial communities think about and interact with biotechnology, as well as encourage more people from indigenous and marginalized communities to get involved with researching, developing and deploying biological technologies. Bringing together practitioners of biological technology from frontline, environmentalist, indigenous, scientific, and industrial communities, combined with the reforms outlined above, could grow bonds of trust across divides and hopefully foster a shared, common community and culture around biological technology.
Finally, by funding the extensive deployment of ecosystem services in and around human populations, along with the production of art and culture about and within those ecosystems, we could help to blur and erase the artificial physical and cultural divides between the human world and the natural world.
Here are two metaphors to describe life, and living things. Life is a 4 billion year old advanced alien nanotechnology, powered by the sun, which can self-replicate, pump out oxygen and convert carbon dioxide into food, medicine, and materials. Alternatively, living things are our kin and our teachers, possessing intrinsic beauty and value, whose gifts and wisdom sustain all people, and who deserve our gratitude, respect, and even reverence. A good and sustainable civilization must recognize that both these conceptions of life are true. Let us work to become that civilization.
We can't afford to keep the status quo.
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