Hope you had a great April 1! It seems like the world is back to normal now, but if you’re like me you probably spend a little too much time playing Google maps Pacman and wishing that Tesla’s parking ticket avoiding cars were available for sale.
Our April Fools joke, Geemo the GMO detector, got some interesting attention too. To come up with Geemo, we just looked at our color-changing flower in a new way: it’s engineered to turn purple. Therefore, when it turns purple, you know there’s a GMO around… Geemo!
We got the idea when a woman at SxSW suggested that we bioengineer a GMO detector. The conversation started out pleasant, but once she learned that we were doing GMO work, her whole mood changed, she became visibly uncomfortable, and she made a comment as she walked away along the lines that “we need to create a plant that can detect GMOs and will turn a putrid brown when it encounters one.” That gave us a chuckle– A GMO plant that can detect GMOs. Delightfully absurd for an April fools prank.
It turns out that a lot of people are interested in a GMO detector. People want information, and they want to understand how technology impacts them. We hope we’ve been able to do this at RevBio by communicating clearly and starting conversations – Geemo or not, our color changing flower is a pretty cool innovation.
Revolution Bio has been trying to start an inclusive conversation about biotechnology – something the agriculture world hasn’t been particularly good at. So when we were invited to talk about synthetic biology at Thought for Food (TFF), we had to take some time to think about how we fit into the big picture.
The TFF Challenge and Global Summit is the SxSW of food security, with morning dance parties, inspirational speakers, and the positive message that you can make a difference. It’s a lot of fun, but the underlying focus is the fact that we will need more food – a lot more – in the next 50 years. The global food system is plagued with inefficient agricultural practices, problems with food storage and distribution resulting in one big issue —waste. We waste potential and we waste food in vast quantities.
US farmers can grow five times as much corn on the same amount of land as African farmers.
In the USA, the King of Corn, we yield about 160 bushels per acre. Africa yields about 30. Lack of training, tools, and techniques results in small-holders in developing nations leaving potential agricultural yields on the table.We don’t need expensive technology to help these farmers– simple low-tech and low-cost approaches like agricultural education will drive enormous gains in farming efficiency.
The Gates Foundation advocates for all of these things – better seeds, better tools, better education – in a recent call to action.
And then there is the waste of food–when food is grown and it is simply thrown away. Between storage, shipping, and packaging, the developing world wastes 1/3 of their food between the farmer and the consumer. In developed worlds, logistics is very efficient, but consumers are not. In developed countries – me, you, most people reading this – wastes 1/3 of the food they bring home.
So how did Revolution fit into this picture? How can biotechnology make a difference here?
Synthetic biology is a technology of promise and potential, but for most people it’s an unknown. And in the context of our food, that unknown comes with a lot of questions about health, safety and necessity. So in our talk at TFF, we started there. We didn’t talk about the world-saving benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Instead, we started a discussion to clear the air, remove the bogeymen and start speaking honestly about what biotechnology can and cannot do.
This model, developed by Harvest Choice lets you look at potential yeild increases with various technologies. Insect protection throughout the developing world yields an 11% increase. “No-till”(using a method of weed control other than tilling) – that increases yeild by 67%. Try it yourself.
Biotechnology cannot save the world by itself. It functions within a system that needs better logistics, new protein sources, and integrated social approaches to nutrition. In some contexts agricultural biotechnology can be a powerful tool, in others, conventional breeding, or a different solution all together might be the answer. It’s up to us to figure out how to thoughtfully integrate this technology with the many others that will build a food secure future. That conversation needs to involve everyone.
We did our part to expand that discussion at TFF with some color changing magic. Who are you talking about biotechnology with?
SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology
I have been selected as one of 2015’s Synthetic Biology LEAP Fellows!
LEAP is designed to develop leaders from the ranks of communicators, scientists, ethicists, industry and do-it-yourselfers invested in the promise, potential, and impact of synthetic biology. I’m pleased to see folks I know as fellow LEAP Fellows—people like Mike Koeris from Sample 6, who is focusing on how to make the future safer, Camille Delebeque from SynBio Consulting, who thinks deeply about complicated questions of policy and science, and Edward Perello who is working to integrate the computer and the wetlab.
I’m also excited to meet those synthetic biology people that I haven’t yet connected with. Scientists like Nicola Patron for example, who in addition to her research has made a brilliant kit for plant transformation via Addgene. Scientist Lalitha Sundaram, who has a passion for biosensors and how it can impact the most poorly served communities. Using biotechnology to improve life across the globe is a passion she shares with Bill Gates, who focuses on agricultural biotechnology in his latest letter.
The world in plants. Click to visit Crop Life’s Biotech Plant Development page for an exceptionally well done description of plant biotechnology
Another Fellow, Cameron Keys, has spent years focusing on the impact of collaboration between social and natural scientists. I’m fascinated to hear what he’s learned about the way this partnership both shapes the actual scientific experiments and the way we share them. After the January NAS interface conference on communicating complex technologies like GMOs, I think we need as much of this collaboration as we can get.
Meet all the 2015 SynBio LEAP fellows! They’ve all got amazing stories.
While I can’t list everyone here, I encourage you to take to learn more about the 2015 SynBio LEAP Fellows. The participants are more than just our jobs or our research. We are interested in the impact of synthetic biology, both as a tool that can begin to be of use now, and more importantly, a tool that can allow us to develop a society that is quite literally sustainable – one where we grow the things we need for the quality of life we want. LEAP fellows are working towards a world where that is possible, and that means both building scientific tools and building a strong ethical foundation for the future.
So what is my vision? I see a beautiful future. Biotechnology is more than a lofty intellectual concept, it is more than a grand plan for some distant future, and it is certainly not limited to large companies with massive corporate empires. Biotechnology can be beautiful. I’m really pleased to be able to bring my vision to LEAP next week & work on building a more beautiful future with these incredible people!