Andreas Späth

Improving photosynthesis?

2015-07-13 10:02

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I get sceptical when I read about scientists with a plan to solve world hunger. I get rather nervous when their scheme involves making ‘improvements’ to nature.

In a review paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, a team of 25 international researchers outline ways in which the “looming agricultural crisis” that the world is facing could be overcome by redesigning food and biofuel crop plants in ways that would increase the efficiency of the photosynthetic process (the mechanism which plants use to convert the energy contained in sunlight into a form that they and those who eat them can store and use).

The authors suggest that the “creative and radically new ideas for redesigning photosynthesis” might include the following:

- Improving the efficiency with which photosynthesising plants are able to harness and use high intensity sunlight in the middle of the day (existing natural plants can only productively utilise a fraction of the photons that hit their leaves in full daylight).

- Improving the efficiency with which plants capture CO2 from the air and convert carbon into energy-storing molecules.

- Engineering the leaves of crop plants in such a way that they don’t compete with each other for sunlight when densely planted next to one another in fields, but optimise the total amount of sunlight they harvest collectively.

They note that this may “require genetic engineering at an unprecedented scale”. To achieve all this, they are proposing the tools of a novel and rapidly growing science that most of us haven’t even heard about, known as synthetic biology.

This interdisciplinary arena of research combines aspects of biology, chemistry, engineering and computer science, has potential practical applications in various industries and has been called “genetic engineering 2.0” and “genetic engineering on steroids”.

While garden-variety genetic engineers are busy releasing millions of genetically modified mosquitoes to fight the dengue virus in Brazil, putting omega-3 fatty acids into oil seed plants, working to get genetically manipulated salmon approved for human consumption and creating super-meaty "double-muscled" pigs, cows and sheep, synthetic biologists are rather more ambitious.

Applying engineering principles to biology, their mission is not just to manipulate the genetic code that naturally occurs in living things, but to create entirely new DNA sequences from scratch and put them to use, to build artificial biological components and complete systems (from individual molecules to complete organisms), and to redesign ones that already exist in nature.

My problem with all of this is that while it sounds very impressive and potentially really scary (we are, after all, talking about a science that is moving from merely trying to observe, describe and understand nature to one that actively interferes in its workings on a grand scale, and nothing could be grander than meddling with photosynthesis, the process which literally sustains life on earth), I don’t really understand the potential implications of synthetic biology.

Now, you might reply that that’s why I should leave it to the experts, but I don’t know whether they’re entirely sure of the possible consequences of their actions themselves. Critics of the field have warned that it involves a number of threats and that it’s being advanced “in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight”.

I do think that ordinary people should have a say in how a science that may fundamentally alter the living environment we inhabit proceeds, whether it’s financed by taxpayers’ money or corporate investors and whether the intentions are altruistic or to generate profits for multinational companies.

Scientists with the hubris to believe that they can improve billions of years of evolution by natural selection should at the very least try to make the effort to explain what they are doing to the rest of us. The onus is on them to prove that their creations will not have unintended catastrophic effects. And no, a single mention of the need for “public discussion of the costs and benefits of such [synthetic] organisms” in a scientific journal isn’t nearly enough.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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