And God Created the Microbe…

May 26, 2010



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Read the original on The Huffington Post.

Dr. Venter’s creation of life could not have come at a more appropriate moment: as a months’ worth of gushing oil begins to shore up on the gulf, an increasing number of scientists and environmentalists have touted the efficacy of bioremediation in mitigating the damage caused by the BP spill. Those who are preoccupied with Dr. Venter as an apparent God 2.0 need not take his creation of life as a sign of the apocalypse, after all, Synthetic DNA has been the norm for centuries among, “academics…biotech companies…even schoolchildren,” The Economist reminds us. What distinguishes Venter and his team–and their competitors in the field–is that they are taking the process one step further, artificially creating genomes through DNA sequencing that can lead to bacteria and algae capable of extraordinary feats including pollution cleanup, clean energy and, of course, independent reproduction.

In many cases, microbes are capable of rapidly consuming and breaking down petroleum and other toxic chemicals through nature’s own detoxification process. At present, coastal microbes–and even some at sea–have the capacity to digest toxic matter while mimicking a typical life cycle: the greater the abundance of food, the more they procreate and eat, until the resource is exhausted. When there’s nothing left to consume, inflated microbe populations return to normal.

Unfortunately, some scientists claim that onshore microbes are the best equipped at breaking down petroleum and that oil must reach the coast before bioremediation can be truly effective. A recent USA Today article quoted microbiologist Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville as stating that, “Nature has already evolved microbes better at consuming hydrocarbons than anything we could grow, and when you go out in the ocean and dump some new organisms on a spill, it already is colonized with those better, natural microbes.” Historically, lab-produced microbes have not been as effective as those occurring naturally, and fertilizing native microbes has been the only effective measure taken to help mitigate the spill through bioremediation at sea.

Dr. Venter’s advances could mark the beginning of new, considerably effective techniques in bioremediation and beyond by creating microbes specifically designed to eat certain forms of waste. Scientists are in fact, moving out of the realm of biotechnology, where genes are manipulated independently, into making absolute changes to how living things are created. (Hence the accusations of “playing God.”) When organisms are created from scratch, the possibilities are endless. Why rely on creatures that have evolved over millions of years in conjunction with certain foods when we can build them specifically to eat pollutants or produce the energy necessary to fuel cars? In that vein, it might be possible for scientists to create a microorganism that does not emit heavy-metal waste from a toxic diet, as has been a commonly stated concern regarding some petroleum-eating bacteria.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States was vastly unprepared for the scale of the BP oil spill. As long as oil is drawn from the ocean and as long as it is transported across the ocean–as was the case in the Exxon Valdez spill–governments must make Research and Development of proper cleanup techniques a top priority. Nancy Kinner, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire told a congressional hearing last week that the government had put, “virtually no money,” into the investigation of chemical dispersants currently being used to target the BP spill. BP’s dispersant of choice, Corexit, is intended to dilute the slick and, consequently, make it easier for naturally occurring microbes to break it down. Unfortunately, the chemical has proved more toxic than previously understood, and is believed to be killing off marine life while pushing oil deeper into the sea.

Whether or not the United States determines that offshore drilling is excessively risky and environmentally threatening, government and private institutions should invest significant capital in understanding and mitigating catastrophes of this scale. Improved–and increased–boom must be created to isolate oil and tar balls from floating to the coast, and clearly, learning to quickly plug a leak of this magnitude is critical. But tackling the oil that rises, plumes and spreads out deep below the surface of the water can be necessary in a worst-case scenario. If Dr. Venter and his colleagues can create innocuous means of mitigating toxic waste at its current levels, they should indeed be lauded as potential saviors. Perhaps God comes in many forms.

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