ethics of bioengineering Archives - Revolution Bioengineering

Tag Archives: ethics of bioengineering

24 Feb

Agricultural Biotechnology: RevBio at Thought for Food

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.

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 yeilds an 11% increase.  Compare that to "no-till"(using a method of weed control other than tilling) - that increases yeild by 67%.  Try it yourself  by clicking here.

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?

Want to know more about TFF? Nikolai was on the team judging panel! Click to learn about the winning teams & the future of food.

14 Jan

How to make a dragon – a step by step bioengineering guide

Revolution Bio is at the top of the search results for the terms ‘crazy bioengineering dragon idea.’ While we are making color-changing flowers, not dragons, I’m pretty excited that people looking for incredible advances in biotechnology find us on the front page. So I’m going to take a cue from XKCD’s “What If” blag and answer the question “What would it take to engineer a dragon?”

Trogdor the Burninator - Homestar Runner“Feel free to follow along with my simple step-by-step instruction.” – Strongbad, Homestar Runner

Part 1 – Should we bioengineer a dragon?

Before starting in on our dragon, we should carefully consider whether or not this project has a function beyond “Well that’s cool.” Modifying a living creature in any way, shape, or form has ethical implications – conventional breeding included. Animals have been domesticated and bred for millenia, and now broiler chickens have such disproportionate amounts of white meat that they can’t stand up . Soldiers and police rely on German Shepherds, but these dogs often have terrible hip problems as a result of their pedigree. There needs to be a compelling and comprehensive answer as to why we should engineer an organism.

Our reason for engineering a dragon doesn’t have to be as direct as “I need to regain the Iron Throne”, though — maybe there are significant technical advances that could be made by starting this project, like better understanding the developmental processes that result in wings and scales and fire-breathing. Maybe this is an engaging way to get the public intrigued in science, technology and the way the two are rapidly evolving. Maybe there are a LOT of consumers that want a pet dragon, or lap giraffes, or housecats that look like lions and cheetahs, and we just didn’t know it until someone asked the question. (Is this you? Support consumer biotechnology and sign up for our mailing list here).

A lap giraffe - luxury consumer biotechnology
Admit it, you signed up for the waiting list.

Let’s take a close look at why we need a dragon, and then determine whether bioengineering is the best possible solution to those needs.

In some cases, there may be an existing solution that could take the place of bioengineering a dragon. Are you looking for an animal companion that will keep down your goat population? Why not a golden eagle instead? Maybe you want a trusty steed that you can rely on in dangerous situations. Horses might be a little tame for your taste, but a war zebra or an elephant might do just as well.

blog post trogdor part 1 dragon v 747
Left: Airplane, Right: Dragon

It’s also unlikely that bioengineering will be the quick and inexpensive way to accomplish your goal. If your primary goal is personal flight transportation, we have some incredible aeronautical engineering marvels out there in the shape of airplanes and helicopters, and human powered gliders also exist. At today’s level of technology, there is no possible way that making this dragon will be in any way cheaper or faster than mechanical flight. An animal that a human can ride through the air is a tall order.

Right now “because they’re cool” is probably still at the top of your list of reasons to bioengineer a dragon. The cool factor drives a lot of product development in everything from fashion to electronics. Dragons, the imaginary ones that don’t exist, are pretty amazing — but to get from zero to dragon, you are going to have to do a lot of basic research and testing. And when we’re talking about engineering a living creature and all its complexities, this can yield ugly, not-quite-dragon, results.

So, is it worth it? Should we bioengineer a dragon? Share your thoughts below!

Part II – Design