Monday, April 14, 2008

E Coli is going to need a labour union...

So we've finally made itty bitty bacterium start to pull their weight. Scientists have recently discovered how to turn on and off certain switches in the RNA of Escherichia coli, enabling it too chase the pesticide atrazine. The artcile in Nature, released last week, relays the views of the scientists on a couple of possibilities associated with this technology. I'm sure, even as an unlearned non-biologist, that finding pesticides and programming bacterium to move things around are just the start.

I mean, the life sciences community has made bacteria able to create biological sensors to find Uranium in Water (for a less technical explanation, I refer you to this handy comic), and the ability to program bacterium to selectively bind to chemicals is old hat by now. Soon we could be using bacterium to do the grunt work in environmental renewal operations. And with the advances we've had in physical chemistry, recently, such as the leaps and bounds we've taken in Uranium Metallurgy, these are exciting times indeed.

The question that any ethicist working with dual-use or risk assessment will pose, of course, is one enquiring into the risks of creating these novel bacterium to do our (at times, quite literally) dirty work for us. What if these bacterium were to breed uncontrollably and start their own biological-disaster-party? My view? I'm skeptical as to the likelihood of this nightmare ever occurring. The study that prompted this post illustrated the problems associated with taking these things out of the lab: the poor likkle bacteria just can't compete with the rest of nature. plus, I hear it's not that hard these days to effectively 'neuter' bacteria. I agree that genetic mutation is a concern we should look at, and certainly more work needs to be done, not just technically but to see how these things react with natural systems. But such new technologies have the power to clean up a world that is badly in need of some cleaning. And when you have rivers like the Ganges bestowing bathers, washers, drinkers and worshipers with hearty doses of poisonous heavy metals, I think the benefits seriously outweigh the risks.

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