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Shape our genes now for our future planet

October 26, 2011

To live on a planet with no dry land, the Sharers “lifeshaped” their own genes. Webbed fingers and toes, and symbiotic “breathmicrobes” adapted them to a water world.

Should we do the same? Our own coasts will be flooding soon; maybe Floridians could use webbed feet. Our own Earth is inexorably becoming “alien,” an overheated world lacking ice and full of violent storms.  As I discussed at Scientific American, we might have to think about reshaping ourselves for our own planet. To protect ourselves from nuclear power disasters, we could engineer greater resistance to radiation — the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand far more radiation than we can, for instance, so why not make use of those bacterial genes. As freshwater dried up, genetic engineers are busy adapting nitrogen-fixing bacteria to nourish plants in salty soil. But we’ll need to make ourselves more salt-tolerant too.

Should we start adapting humans to our alien future home–before it’s too late?

Note: Since comments questioned rising sealevels, seven meters (7 m) in the next century is a conservative guess.
Sixty Meters (60 m–yes, meters) is possible if the Antarctic melts.

And remember–whether 7 meters or 60, it won’t stop there.
That’s what The Highest Frontier is about.

  1. October 26, 2011 10:18 pm

    I’d rather just use synthetic biology to create bacteria that take in sunlight and carbon dioxide and crank out long-chain polymers to sequester the carbon, and pour the vast amounts of generated goo down old coal mines until we reach a more comfortable CO2 level. Adapting ourselves would be expensive enough, but there’s no way we could afford to adapt all the species that would be wiped out by catastrophic climate change; I’d rather not lose all that biodiversity.

    • October 27, 2011 11:10 am

      Yes, genetically adapting all the biosphere would be needed too. That’s actually what the Sharers did (will post soon.) Ironic–a whole genetically modified natural environment(?)

  2. paws4thot permalink
    October 27, 2011 5:44 am

    I’m not sure that “sea level could rise by $amount” is actually all that helpful in determining the amount of flooding that will cause. It’s usually accompanied by some nonsensical claim that “this means that all land within $several miles of the current coast will be flooded”.

    My Mum lives about a mile from the current coast. An 8′ rise in sea level would reduce this to 0.25 miles. For her to get wet feet when she steps out the front door would require a 38′ rise though!
    The “new polders” in the Netherlands are below the current sea level.
    See the way I’m thinking?

    Sure, better radioactivity resistance would be nice, but is it actually necessary?

    • October 27, 2011 10:02 am

      Of course, the sea-level rises are approximate, average predictions. But 8-foot rise is pretty optimistic. Several meters in the next century is more likely. And up to 60 meters is possible, if enough Antarctic ice comes off.

      Humans can build dikes and keep it up–at enormous cost. No one else has done as well as the Netherlands. Even there, to quote Wikipedia, “Polders are at risk from flooding at all times and care must be taken to protect the surrounding dikes.” The biggest danger is muskrats tunneling underneath.

      You’re right there’s still hope for Florida, if people start thinking soon.

      • paws4thot permalink
        October 27, 2011 10:46 am

        The biggest rise I’d previously seen quoted was 60 feet, not metres, and that required the total melting of the Antarctica land ice. at which point we have a new habitable continent.

          • paws4thot permalink
            October 28, 2011 5:55 am

            Given the difference between their figures and the last set I’d seen, someone has made a wrong assumption or measurement about the total volume of permanent land-based ice on the planet. I’m not saying who becaues I don’t know, but one of the 2 figures must be badly wrong.

        • October 27, 2011 11:15 am

          You’re right that we don’t really know–it could be 2 meters or 60, but we live now and whatever decisions we make now will make the difference. That’s what makes it tough.

  3. October 27, 2011 2:20 pm

    I guess my issue with this is that our current technology for introducing novel genes means that they actually decrease diversity, rather than increasing it.

    I can think of two reasons for the problems. One is that we don’t have a good way of changing people’s genomes en masse. If we were going to make ourselves more like Deinococcus, for example, we’d need to make chromosomal changes, not just gene insertions. Having a few people around who have a beneficial gene won’t help much, because the environment poses many threats, and I’m quite willing to believe they will fall victim to one or more of them.

    A second issue is that such changes are expensive, and investors want a good rate of return on them. Hence we get the totally unworkable system in the US today, where (for example) Monsanto sues farmers in Illinois who are not using their genetically altered soy, simply because those farmers have machines for harvesting soy beans to plant, and are therefore (through guilt by association) guilty of infringing on Monsanto’s patents. So long as genes are patentable, there’s no point in calling for genetic modification of humans. I don’t want my children enslaved to a large corporation, forced to jump through their hoops to find a spouse and have kids. That’s where they’d have to go at this moment, too.

    Besides which, one of the ways to grow plants in saline soils is to use gypsum, which is also found in the drywall of the houses we’ll have to abandon as sea levels rise. I predict that people will be ripping down suburban tracts around the world to make the soil more fertile, and more power to them. There are a lot of valuable techniques which don’t involve GMOs, and anyone can do them.

    If you want to get into fixing problem soils, don’t bother waiting for sea level rise. There are brownfield sites around the US in need of soil remediation, and in many places one problem is salt. Why not get involved today and develop the technology in a way that will allow people to recolonize sites previously lost to short-sighted industrial practices?

    • October 27, 2011 9:10 pm

      All good ideas–and some are actually practical!

  4. Petter permalink
    October 28, 2011 5:50 am

    Small scale is definitely good for the time being. We have no idea of the side effects any genetic modifications would have on a human being. Are there people that really want a modification, then make a legal framework that makes it possible to get it. In 20 years time if no serious side effects have been discovered it can be tried on a somewhat larger scale. Mass genemodification is a big nono for me though, the vulnerability of an oligoclonal human species isnt worth it.

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