— We live in in­ter­est­ing times

Cosmos - - Contents - EL­IZ­A­BETH FINKEL Editor-in- chief

TWO HUN­DRED YEARS of in­dus­trial-scale tech­nol­ogy have made our planet less hab­it­able. We’ve crowded out in­di­vid­ual species and now whole ecosys­tems are in peril as the cli­mate warms.

But we live in in­ter­est­ing times. Tech­nol­ogy just might come to the res­cue.

Geo-en­gi­neers are busy scal­ing up tech­niques that can suck car­bon diox­ide out of the at­mos­phere. Now it is the bi­ol­o­gists’ turn to flex their mus­cles and show what heavy lift­ing they can do with their tool kit.

One au­da­cious goal is to speed up the evo­lu­tion of species to keep pace with the chang­ing cli­mate. An­other is to de­liver greener in­dus­trial tech­nolo­gies to ad­dress the root cause of the prob­lem.

Three sto­ries in this is­sue of Cos­mos show­case how the bi­o­log­i­cal tool kit is be­ing de­ployed to fix plan­e­tary prob­lems. The tools are equal parts thrilling and con­tro­ver­sial.

For starters, take a look at the story on co­ral reefs – the ca­naries in the plan­e­tary coal mine. The reef builders are jel­ly­fish-like crea­tures called co­ral polyps. To sur­vive in nu­tri­ent-poor wa­ters, they form an in­ti­mate li­ai­son with al­gae. Should the sea tem­per­a­ture climb a sin­gle de­gree above the co­ral’s nor­mal max­i­mum for more than a few weeks, that’s the end of the re­la­tion­ship and the death of the co­ral. Re­searchers from the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Ma­rine Science have been ex­plor­ing meth­ods to speed up the co­ral’s evo­lu­tion to adapt to warmer wa­ters. Long con­sid­ered fringe, as of Jan­uary this work is be­ing se­ri­ously con­sid­ered by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment and its ex­pert in­sti­tu­tions.

For species that don’t make it, the bi­ol­o­gists’ tool kit is now of­fer­ing Juras­sic Park- style res­ur­rec­tions. Last De­cem­ber An­drew Pask at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne pieced to­gether the genome of the Tas­ma­nian tiger, or thylacine. Now he is tak­ing the first steps to clone one, us­ing the pow­er­ful gene edit­ing tool known as CRISPR. The idea is to re­work the DNA of the num­bat – a striped, ter­mite-eat­ing, squir­rel-sized rel­a­tive – to re­sem­ble that of the tiger.

The bi­ol­o­gists’ tool kit may also help blunt the ef­fects of our in­sa­tiable ap­petite for en­ergy and com­modi­ties. So­lar and wind power will sup­ply ever more en­ergy, but we will still need fu­els to power the likes of aero­planes and feed in­dus­trial pro­cesses like plas­tic pro­duc­tion.

Synthetic bi­ol­ogy, a dis­ci­pline that views a liv­ing or­gan­ism not as a mys­tery but as a ma­chine to be re-en­gi­neered as needed, is try­ing to de­liver more sus­tain­able bio­fu­els, as well as a range of com­modi­ties from per­fumes to plas­tics.

None of these projects will be rolled out with­out so­cial li­cence. Wit­ness the ob­sta­cles faced by a prod­uct as be­nign as golden rice, a GM crop de­signed to fix the vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency that each year causes more than half a mil­lion chil­dren in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to go blind.

So read up and get pre­pared for the coming de­bates. Whether or not these tech­nolo­gies go ahead is up to you.

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