7.4 Engineering New Life Forms

Some of the methods described in the last two sections are also being employed to develop new or modified life forms. Current examples include special strains of bacteria that can attack ocean oil spills, digest the material, and reprocess it into harmless substances. Others make antibiotics, antibodies, and other pharmaceuticals for a variety of human and animal disease treatments. On the drawing board are bacteria that can concentrate the minute amounts of, say, gold in a rock ore, making the extraction of very low percentages of such metals feasible. Other useful strains could process garbage, produce crude oil, or separate discarded metals and plastics into their elemental constituents for recycling. In conjunction with the biological nanomachines of the last section, scavenger species could also be devised and targeted to particular harmful substances or organisms in the human body. Such goals are already being achieved through recombinant DNA techniques, wherein the specific gene(s) responsible for some attribute of one life form are identified and spliced into the DNA of another form. In the case of simple proteins and DNA strands, genetic engineers have been able to design and build the entire strand from the base materials, and methods for doing this are gradually being extended to more complex proteins.

Possible uses of these techniques on plant genetic material include development of new species of high-yield grains, ones that can grow even in poor soils or climates, as well as the combining of two food producing methods into one plant. An example of the latter is the "pomato," which grows fruit above the ground and tubers below. Higher forms of life may also be modified in this manner. Cattle could be developed that are hardy to colder weather, can graze on poorer ground, give more meat or milk, require less care, or are more resistant to disease. Chickens may be induced to grow larger and to lay bigger eggs. Since the change is at the DNA level, the result is not just a hybrid cross-breed; the new characteristics breed true. Science fiction writers have long speculated that someday all food may be manufactured by bacterial action on raw materials at a far higher efficiency than photosynthesis, with conventional farming becoming obsolete.

There is still concern that a genetically engineered virus or bacteria might be released that would cause a plague taking millions of lives. Another disaster scenario involves creating a life form that is capable of nothing but making copies of itself, using the entire biological world for its own ends--the "grey goo" finale to all other life forms. Laboratories that work with genetic materials must be very careful, for it is not yet possible to predict all the side effects of gene splicing. The section being spliced may control characteristics other than the one being targeted, and the life form developed may not be what is expected.

Such difficulties are to be expected in any technology in its infancy. It is safe to assume that the understanding of genetic coding will continue to grow to the point where the DNA even of complex life forms can be mapped. Several nations have already funded the complete mapping of human genetic material (the human genome project). Now this information has been gathered, the raw data is available to discover what each gene controls and to edit human gene sequences.

Methods for changing specific characteristics will also become more sophisticated. It will be several years before new life forms can be developed from scratch, tailored to measure for their niche in the earth's ecological system, but this too seems inevitable. New plant and animal species will likely be made to improve the food supply or replace it with chemically manufactured substances. In the future, some adventuresome workers might tackle the revival of extinct species like the mastodon, certain dinosaurs, or the passenger pigeon. Another possibility is the enhancement of existing animal species. Could some be given enough intelligence to perform menial tasks, become factory workers, cleaners, or message carriers? Can some kind of animal/machine be developed that is not only alive but also programmable? The answers to such questions are not known at this time, but if they are positive, then humanity will ultimately face a period of adjustment to its own creations, and the necessity of finding them a place alongside the human biospace.

Questions have been asked about who owns the products of such research. In the United States, patents on new life forms developed in the lab have been granted--a practice that is certain to remain controversial. At issue is whether living materials developed in the lab at the cost of time, talent, energy and money are qualitatively different from medical drugs developed in the same way. As long as viral, bacterial, or plant material is in question, the public may take relatively little interest in the matter. When animal species are genetically re-engineered, opposition to patents and even to the research itself may run somewhat high. However, the controversy generated by plant and animal genetic research pales by comparison to that from questions of applying this research to humans.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises