18 March 2003
YOUR GENETICALLY MODIFIED FUTURE
"For obvious reasons, the vast majority of the world's middle-class people will not want to beta-test genetic software on their offspring. But history shows that there is nothing so stupid that someone won't try it - look at the parents today attempting to turn their children into star athletes by pumping them full of steroids and growth hormone."
New and Improved! A user's guide to your genetically modified future
By Charles C. Mann
The Promise: Earth is essentially a ball of microorganisms, and their prolific breeding habits, short lifespans, and genomic flexibility make them ideal subjects for genetic manipulation. The list of potential uses is enormous: processing oil at the well, breaking down cellulose for paper, turning cornstarch into plastic, even helping home sink-disposal units treat sewage. All these are on the drawing board, and more will follow. The technology will become so pervasive that it will fundamentally alter materials science, chemical engineering, and environmental management. As industrial biotech explodes, every manufacturing company will become a de facto biotech company. But to gain the public trust needed to achieve its potential, the industry will need to move slowly and transparently - something it has shown no inclination to do.
The Peril: Even modified by industry, the microworld will maintain its own Darwinian agenda. Containing bacteria in a lab is relatively straightforward, but when bioengineered bugs end up on the factory floor, they'll be under the care of Homer Simpson. Accidents will be inevitable, and microorganisms are capable of such astonishing evolutionary feats that predicting the consequences of escapes is impossible. Environmental activists fear we could enter a new era of infectious disease - one due entirely to our own folly.
The Prediction: Superbugs will be common - and so will bug accidents.
The Promise: Vaccines and antibiotics, the major biomedical advances of the past century, hugely decreased infant mortality and helped accelerate the worldwide population boom. So far, though, researchers have had less success with the end of life. In the last few decades, most of the increase in longevity has come from improved nutrition and sanitation, not techniques to counteract the aging process or cure disease. Over the next 10 years, technology could change all that, as scientists add years to the human lifespan by learning how to custom-clone organs and give patients greatly improved screens for microorganism-caused ills. Because many of the most promising advances involve therapeutic cloning (producing organs and tissue rather than an entire human being), and because this necessarily requires the creation of a blastocyst - a ball of several hundred cells that is a very early-stage embryo - religious and conservative leaders around the world oppose the procedures. If that weren't barrier enough, so much of this technology is encumbered by overlapping patents that it may never get out of the lab.
The Peril: For obvious reasons, the vast majority of the world's middle-class people will not want to beta-test genetic software on their offspring. But history shows that there is nothing so stupid that someone won't try it - look at the parents today attempting to turn their children into star athletes by pumping them full of steroids and growth hormone. By 2013, dictators could be trying to mass-produce super-speed skaters for the 2030 Olympics. Most of the negative human consequences will presumably be aborted. But some will make it into the world, and medical researchers will be busy striving to figure out a way to give them normal lives. Equally problematic will be the occasional successes: What about those speed skaters, anyway? What are the odds that society would welcome them?
The Prediction: Moral objections to medical advances will be overcome, if only because holding these opinions is a poor survival strategy.
The Promise: The trees around us are more or less wild - the only plants extensively used by people that have not been bred to a fare-thee-well. From a lumber perspective, trees are inefficient: Almost two-thirds of the wood is tied up in roots and branches, neither of which are useful to people. (In contrast, wheat has almost half its weight in highly useful grain.) By manipulating the genes that control root and branch development, scientists may be able to collapse thousands of years of cultivation into a generation or two to create stubby, wide supertrees that look nothing like their ancestors. Packed almost as close together as wheat in a field, supertrees would suck up more carbon per unit of land than any other plant - a living barricade against global warming. They could also take some pressure off of the world's oil fields: Many already produce toxic, petroleum-like hydrocarbons as natural defenses. As Freeman Dyson has argued, it should be possible to enhance their production of these compounds, then tap trees as an energy source, maple-sugar style. Because the immediate return on silvicultural biotechnology is so low, the government will have to step in by offering funding or incentives. One suggestion: To gain popular support, begin by backing the American Chestnut Foundation's efforts to splice blight-resistance genes into the American chestnut. Now almost extinct, this extraordinarily beautiful tree was a major feature of the American landscape until the introduction of chestnut blight in 1904.
The Peril: Genetically modified plants could interbreed with their wild relatives. Consider Johnson grass, an invasive cousin of sorghum that farmers and the government spend millions a year to control, mainly with herbicides. The prospect of genetically engineered sorghum transferring its powers to Johnson grass is an activist's nightmare. Short, nearly branchless trees would be fine in remote paper plantations, but if they spread to real forests they could unleash an ecological disaster.
The Prediction: Extremely strange-looking forests in extremely strange places - like the Outback and the Pampas.
The Promise: As biotech begins to give people longer, healthier lives, it will become an economic pacesetter, much as computers have been since the 1970s. The combination of a demographic wave of aging boomers, the most affluent generation in history willing to spend it all on health, and an unprecedented pipeline of new drugs, will make Big Pharma the biggest industry of all. When that happens, some Biotech Alley could replace Silicon Valley as the destination for the brightest, most ambitious PhDs. By investing in and nurturing nimble biotech startups, and then helping to market the products they create, today's pharmaceutical giants, like Merck and Pfizer, will become the General Electrics and Microsofts of tomorrow. One of the brightest hopes is rapid genomic analysis: instantly identifying pathogens and tailoring treatments to avoid side effects. But for that to happen, the drug industry must stop marketing "me too" products and playing licensing games, a strategy that has led to short-term profits, stock analyst approval - and rising public anger.
The Peril: Call it Carl Sagan syndrome, after the self-proclaimed ultra-rationalist who spent millions on unproven - and ultimately pointless - cancer treatments. But as the desire for longer life fuels the biotech industry, that attitude could bankrupt the larger economy. Already, a huge percentage of the budgets of developed nations, especially the US, is directed toward taking care of the old, and as societies tie up a greater proportion of their resources in postponing death, Generations X, Y, and Z could begin to resent the baby boomers - a scenario envisioned in Bruce Sterling's gerontocratic novel, Holy Fire. Meanwhile, the ancient wealthy will live in fear that their insurance companies will refuse to cover the newest life-extension methods. Just as Marx predicted: the dictatorship of the actuaries.
The Prediction: With any luck, the new pharma economy will catalyze a long boom greater than that of 1982-2000.
URGENT appeal to let the voices of the world be heard.
The leaders of the most powerful nations on Earth have failed us. The Security Council has failed us. The world stands on the brink of war.
If ever there was a need for the United Nations to rise to the challenge it was conceived to meet, now is that time.
Through a little-used mechanism known as Resolution 377A, the "Uniting for Peace" resolution, the General Assembly may be the last hope for disarming Iraq peaceably and stopping the US war machine.
You can write to your UN ambassador to support this resolution from here:
The Uniting for Peace resolution empowers the General Assembly to meet in emergency session to address acts of aggression or a breach of the peace when the Security Council has been unable to act. Its was first used to bring about a cease-fire in the Suez crisis of 1950, forcing Britain and France to withdraw from Egypt within a week, even after they had vetoed calls for a cease-fire in the Security Council. It's been used ten times since then, most often at the request of the United States.
If you believe, as we do, that the very future of the world, and of the United Nations, is being put at risk in the name of a pre-emptive war, please join the call for the UN General Assembly to respond. Ask that the Uniting for Peace resolution be invoked, that the war on Iraq be condemned, and that peaceable means of disarming Iraq be sought.
The next hours may provide our last chance to change a dangerous course in history. The United Nations must not allow a world order based on multilateralism to be replaced with one in which the mightiest and richest make the rules.
You can read more here:
and, again, you can write to your UN ambassador to support this
resolution from here:
Visit the No War website for more news:
http://nowar.greenpeace.orgPlease take a few minutes to act now.
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