By Laurene Williams, HoneyColony Original
It’s 1957, the year of Sputnik. We’re watching Little Richard in black and white, and playing with Slinkys on the staircase. Meanwhile in China, Dr. Tang Feifan has a breakthrough. He isolates a bacterial species Chlamydia trachomatis and cultures it in the yolk sac of an embryonated chicken egg. His colleagues around the globe conduct similar experiments on other organisms. They look for pathogens to cure diseases and envision resilient strains with a range of advantages for creating vaccines and studying resistance.
The exchange of scientific data flows no faster than a printing press. Or a rotary phone call. Creativity rocks the lab.
And catastrophic sci-fi scenarios lurk.
A young Brazilian scientist begins to collect European bees (Apis mellifera) in São Paulo. Also known as the European honeybee, Apis mellifera is native to not only Europe but also Asia and Africa. Of their 28 subspecies, all yield a modest amount of honey and are marginally suited for tropical climates. By breeding imported African bees in the same location, the young scientist can begin the careful process of conventional crossbreeding to produce a superior variety.
The scientist goes on hiatus. Enter the substitute beekeeper. He’s a dedicated novice who seems to have a decent command of the environment. While his boss is on break, the substitute miscalculates and the African bees escape from their hive.
Imagine Michael Crichton taking over at this point. Mankind teeters on the brink of extinction, as vigilant citizens uncover a covert government operation aimed at eliminating undesirables and subjugating the masses. Instead we have the true story of the “killer bee.” In reality that young scientist was a biologist named Warwick Kerr whose substitute beekeeper unwittingly let the bees out and sparked a smaller, more robust and productive hybrid: the “Africanized” honeybee, which is no more African than it is European.
Bred in Central America and certain tropical areas of South America, the hybrid bees stand as a testament to man’s wont in nature. We have an unbridled desire to take risks, make mistakes, manage side effects, and make enhancements. And our accidents raise a curious footnote about lore and naming conventions. Reports indicate that the Africanized honey bee, aka killer bee, while notably more aggressive than their ancestors, have killed fewer than a dozen people since they migrated to the U.S. in 1990.
But what will happen when scientists create more hybrids that involve more organisms? Will the hybrids become more aggressive and virulent, or develop super immunities? Will they displace other species? Will they succumb to climate change? Will seemingly good intentions produce irreversibly dangerous results?
It’s 2012. North Carolina. Scientists devise a brain implant for Rhesus monkeys to make them smarter than average. Unlike a prosthetic device, the implant substantially improves the monkeys’ thinking and has a direct impact on memory, language, and attention.
Barcelona. Doctors, clinical researchers, and technologists replicate the human heart as a three-dimensional super computer simulation. Led by Mariano Váquez at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, the Alya Red project is eerie and majestic. It wins the 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the journal Science.
Months later, biologists integrate DNA from different species to produce a drug. The drug targets malaria, a disease that afflicts an estimated 7% of the world’s population. It’s a breakthrough. The drug marks the first large-scale production of synthetic biology, an emerging field with consequences as far-flung as our personalities. Experiments range in scope and application, implicating body parts, diseases, vaccines, foods, fuels, extinct species, and other organic matter in a high-stakes game of altering DNA and changing life as we know it.
Working from the premise that biological organisms are comprised of modular programmable pieces, synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary field that involves creative teams of engineers, software developers, and biologists. It’s an advanced form of genetic engineering with the potential to mass produce nontraditional food sources, if not colonize Mars. By mastering genomes, building biological systems, and making unimaginable products, mankind can theoretically shape its evolutionary course. And make it especially rosy.
But if we allow developments to go unchecked, pulling the plug on “progress” could be like trying to stop a bullet train. More Franken freaks and foods could get pushed out onto the beltways. It could be a future starring crazy microscopic lab critters that integrate, proliferate, and ultimately hijack our DNA, producing demented species that erupt from us whole, like something out of Alien.
Or perhaps, we’ll gracefully enter the age of dramatically less pain and suffering, where humans are quickly patched up and become less grumpy, more resilient, and more thoughtful. As mankind rides this unprecedented technological wave, a door has opened. Within our grasp is the power to redesign nature.
When we can transfer a gene from a farm animal and inject it into another species, or when we can use embryonic stem cells to replicate any organ of the body, we’ve effectively altered the conversation about what we are and how we can be improved. Does human physiology more closely resemble a lab animal or the latest computer model? As engineers increasingly master the process of recombinant DNA technology, it becomes strikingly clear that we are a sum of replicable and replaceable components.
It’s 2050. We’re beyond Google Glass, those smart spectacles that can send a text message or snap a picture by voice command. We’ve been embedded with microchips, memory chips, insulin-regulating chips, GPS chips, and probably potato chips. We’ve eradicated Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease. Brick and mortar education has been reduced to plugging into the Internet 2.0 to download requested information. Match.com is dead. We simply gather in a town square and scan one another for scents and hormone secretions, concurrently processing a long list of compatibility criteria by using computer modules located in our eyes. We can swap a pair of shoddy knees for a sturdier set and print an entire fall fashion wardrobe at home. And the average life span nears 120 years.
Numerous ancient and modern-day constructs seem to shift out of phase, as our bursting technological lexicon reconfigures the basics: God, religion, nature, commitment, marriage, birth. Their meanings have a hard time remaining static while all else changes. As we realize the true entanglement of so many disciplines, we tweak and redefine what seems forever untouchable and constant: food, wisdom, education, the human body.
But how do we coordinate the grand efforts of the science and engineering communities without losing ground and getting vertigo?
It’s today. Someplace, somewhere, some life force is being eradicated in the name of harder, better, faster, stronger hybrids, and more desirable species. The invisible life force that permeates everything we see becomes radically more difficult to define. And it is this fuzzy force, so elusive, that floats around the planet without a protection agency or conservationist group. Nobody owns it. And no one group can claim it. We have no real means of measuring what happens energetically and spirituality each time we manipulate it beyond recognition. Speechless, that thing we call “energy” encourages its own neglect—or its essential openness. In plain view, it’s a willing participant in our upcoming creations.
Perhaps science will teach us that energy, in whatever form it arrives, by nature or design, cannot be copyrighted. Or coordinated. Like any old digital burp, it’s meant to get mashed up.
But at what cost? The advent of penicillin and the detonation of the atom bomb remind us in stark terms that whenever humans probe and tinker with nature, we typically get mixed results. This next phase of our evolution will depend less on our powers of imagination and more on our collective ability to articulate the world we want. If it’s a world where we invite test-tube hamburgers as a way to end poverty and reduce CO2 emissions, we have to imagine burgers that deliver more than just vitamins and minerals. If we plan to live to 100, we can’t marginalize a workforce that’s reached the age of 50. If we want to print and accept new body parts, we have to entertain a range of “un”natural alterations and procedures—because endless and exponentially more powerful technologies are coming. They’ll either spawn an avalanche of consequences we can’t manage or we’ll manage them by using reason. With compass in hand, we can successfully guide ourselves through an era that is poised to change our lives in profound ways. The more information we have, the more we can gauge the meaning of the smallest scientific and technological breakthroughs. Only then can we, as consumers, patients, and citizens, truly understand how we support “progress,” and how we will shape the outcome.
Meet The New Meat—TedEx