TED Conversations

Philipp Böing

Founder: Darwin Toolbox, SynBioSoc / UCL iGEM organizer, University College London

TEDCRED 200+

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Should Synthetic Organisms be released to clean plastic pollution from the ocean?

The Problem: Microplastic pollution in the ocean.
Proposed Solution: Engineered Organisms that can collect the pollution into recyclable pieces. (the science behind this: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/igem2012 )
A video explanation: http://youtu.be/rEDLg03teOk

Should Synthetic Organisms be released to clean plastic pollution from the ocean? Is synthetic biology the only solution to plastic pollution? Can we anticipate and prevent any negative repercussions? Do the potential risks outweigh the benefits? Who could profit from this? Who calls the shots?

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  • MR T

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    Jul 12 2012: A cost benefit analysis is required based on experiments done in large aquariums with current simulation. It is an absolute necessity to make sure these organisms have very little chance, through mutation, by the selective pressure of a lack of plastic, to adapt their biology to consume a different food source that may result in competition with other species.

    The problem with this is: Small organisms don't live long so removing their reproductive capability may result in faliure to remove plastic. Keeping a reproductive capability may remove more plastic but as small organisms have short generation times there is increased probability of evolutionary adaptation to a new food source. Perfecting a balanced organism that exists somewhere in the midst of this dichotomy will be very difficult indeed.
  • Jul 18 2012: I say No they should not because if this world falls to far onto technology and synthetic things to take care of our responsibilities we will become lazy people take wall-e for example yes i know it is only a cartoon movie made for kids but don't you think the resin it is a kids movie is because the kids of today are the leaders of tomorrow and it shows a valid point if we rely on other things to do our everyday task we will become lazy and do nothing all day
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    Aja B. 20+

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    Jul 15 2012: There was an in-depth piece on Craig Venter's synthetic creatures in the NYTmag last month: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/magazine/craig-venters-bugs-might-save-the-world.html

    The author seems pretty biased in favor of Venter, but I still found it an interesting (and frightening) read. It doesn't really sound like there's any "if" about it... these guys are just going to do it and see what happens.
  • Jul 15 2012: No! Too many variables. The oceans seas, lakes, & waterways of the world have taken a huge hit from humans & other means must be created to clean up this mess. The creatures, that call water home, are struggling to adapt or die out in the process. Humans have used the waters as their personal trash heap for centuries & the solution is NOT adding more to the mix but cleaning up the mess with a more thought out solution.
  • Jul 13 2012: No to Synthetic Organisms. Yes to robots. Big robots, not nanobots. Solar powered drones moving through the ocean that can serve many purposes, data collection and garbage collection in particular.

    (It would be impossible to test the effect of nanobots on all of the species in the oceans; we haven't discovered all of them yet.)
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      Jul 13 2012: You would need a lot of big robots. Solar powered always sounds nice, but you need a lot of rare materials to produce them and i don't think that solar modules produce enough energy unless we can copy the efficiency of photosynthesis...like in an synthetic organism. So robots may sound more familiar today (this has not always been the case) but could actually do more harm than an synthetic organism.
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      Jul 16 2012: that will actually destroy coral reefs in the process, another reason we cant even go to clean up the bottom of the ocean floor, these plastic bags are entagled in the reefs, any pulling will damage them. were screwed basically.
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    Jul 13 2012: Only if you know all 100% of the consequences. So, knowing, not guessing!
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      Jul 13 2012: That would be nice but is not going to happen. With every new technology there is always some kind of uncertainty (who thought of Chlorofluorocarbon or the housing bubble). Today in SynBio uncertainty is very big but it will get smaller.The question is if that is enough.
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        Jul 13 2012: Sebatsian, exactly!

        And for the risk of this magnitude I would not choose this technology for the described problem.
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    Jul 12 2012: Synthetic organisms can do some things we can't do in an other way and for some jobs like your project you would have to release them into the wild. Today this is not legal and this is fine, because we don't understand the technology well enough. Today the risks are very low but so are the benefits. This might change in the future, but until then, SynBio has to proof itself a lot in the lab and under safe conditions. We have to develop preventions mechanisms like predicting potential unintended reactions (this can and has to be done, in IT Security they don't test just if it works but also if it does something which was not intended under very rare circumstances), create a self controlling community which is aware of the risks and can act just in case, develop mechanisms to "remove" "buggy" organisms from our environment, talk to people who live in the environment we want to release GMOs and research how synthetic organisms combine with natural organisms. If we cannot do those kind of things I don't think it is responsible to release the organisms in the environment. But if we wait long enough the environmental problems will become so big that anybody with a solution will be a hero. Until then, we should have done our homework.

    Somehow your project reminds me of Wall-E :D
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    Jul 18 2012: If you can then organ-ize another organism to find the first organisms and kill them by eating THEM - and then commit suicide immediately by turning into pure H20 - I am for it. Until then - stop freaking around!
  • Jul 18 2012: No, no and no. It could create a much bigger problem and wipe out all the existing marine life. I say make the environment number one. No environment equals no people. The rest of the important issues are secondary.
  • Jul 18 2012: Certainly not! By reason of the complexity of the systems involved, the comparatively trivial level of our understanding, the potential scale of the fall out and the infallible law of unintended consequences.

    How did such large quantities of plastic become deposited in the seas in the first place? By our certain knowledge that no great harm would come of it!

    I would rather trust nature to take care of the problem in its own manner in its own time, even if it takes 10,000 years - that is a mere blip. The most important role we can play is to stop adding to the problems nature must contend with. The clear lesson is not to be so disregarding of things we don't understand.
  • Jul 18 2012: One problem with using living microbes for human purposes is evolution. There is no possible safeguard against random changes to genes, and this will result in consequences that are unpredictable and possibly very harmful. This same risk is ever present, with billions of species of wild microbes that might evolve into something harmful. But humans have no control and no responsibility for wild microbes. For designed microbes, the person releasing them has full responsibility for the consequences. Since no one could guarantee that they could reverse the harmful effects of a designed microbe, it is irresponsible and wrong to release them. (Does the word wrong still have a place in debates of public issues?)

    I like Debra Smith's solution; go out there and pick it up; we need the jobs. Then when we calculate the cost of cleaning up all that plastic we can add it to the price of future plastic products. Plastic sales will plummet.
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    Jul 18 2012: NO!!!!!!!! Absolutely, positively not!

    Get out there and understand every molecule of the world's oceans before you loose a single microbe from your lab!

    Ecosystems are inordinately complex and I bet you don't even know all the details of the microbes you're playing with. Let's be honest here, you've tweaked a gene here and a gene there in some 'coli's and Roseobacters, right?

    Build an E. coli from scratch first, model every last amino acid, be able to count every phospholipid, ion, even the water molecules! Then be able to list every epigenetic change possible in Escherichia Coli that can be triggered environmentally, or by the little bugger's own whim, etc. Not necessary to memorize, but at least have the entirety of organic chemistry modeled in some ridiculously powerful supercomputer. Be able to map the location of every single entity over half a kilodalton in the all the oceans, whether it can wiggle or not. (Should keep ya busy a while eh?)

    Then you can play god with the Pacific.
  • Jul 18 2012: It appears to me that you are focused on the waste of energy and not the use of energy, remember we humans are extremely in efficient machines, our maintenance requirements exceed our out put under the best of conditions by a ration of six to one, more often it is 15 to one or more.
    Energy is what keeps living things going or being alive regardless it's source. On this globe called earth we have energy captured from the sun either concurrent with it use or as fossil sources and from spiting or combining elements, fusion and fission. Wind, water, bio fuels and direct capture of the suns rays are all solar based, but are energy. Only one of them can be transformed in to something resembling plastic. Even the plastic you suggest as a substitute was made only through the application of energy. The value of any object is nothing more than the energy the purchaser is willing to offer. Money is a storage device for the ability to command energy. When we spend money we are offering energy or buying the energy it took to bring the item being purchased to where we purchase the item.
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      Jul 18 2012: I'm just postulating that at some stage it will be cheaper to gather flotsam from the oceans as a source of plastic than find more oil. The number is irrelevent. Releasing the organisms described in the question would destroy a resource.
  • Jul 18 2012: Waste is nothing more than a resource out of place. The suggestion that when oil is $1000 US per barrel fails to recognize that the energy in the barrel of oil remains constant and the only thing that changes is the inflated dollar, if it remains the standard currency, number we assign to getting the barrel. The net energy to produce any given product can be changed by innovation.
    I am reminded on the solution the operators of one solid wast incinerator adopted to solve the problem they were having with plastic containers. The plastic containers fouled and clogged the feed mechanism.They pulled them out of the trash feed to the incinerator for several months and then fed them all at once to the grates. Well plastics are high energy elements and the grates were melted putting the incinerator out of service for several months. Be careful how you recover a waste where it may be.
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      Jul 18 2012: I was assuming that by the time oil is that expensive its value as a monomer source would have stopped us using it as a fuel. We have alternative energy sources (impractical as they may be) but there is no alternative source for the carbon chains we all rely on every day to plastic up our lives.
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    Jul 16 2012: I got a great solution stop using plastics! Even if this organism breaks it down with out side effects, if we do not stop plastic making at its source it will be futile. Also may I add people like to throw away garbage no matter what you tell them. How do we stop that, we could also change the source to a bio-degradable version.
  • Jul 16 2012: This is too big a problem for a debate: practical trials are the only way to make progress. Debates never end...
  • Jul 16 2012: Hi, I am one of the members of this iGEM team. Here's some added information about our project that we would like your opinion on. In order to prevent horizontal gene transfer, we are engineering a system of "kill switch" genes into our cells. In effect, if the cells lose their engineered plasmids to wild type cells, this triggers they system, killing the cells, and preventing the introduced genes from entering the environment.

    Separately, we have an exonuclease system that will degenerate any extracellular DNA, preventing genes from being released into the environment after cell death.

    What other kinds of safeguards do you think are necessary if such a system is actually put into place?
    • Jul 16 2012: I am a biomedical science graduate. Although what you are saying has been proven, i still believe there is still a chance of gene recombination that could result in the deactivation kill switch'. I am fine with the use of GEM organisms in the lab and in treating patients. but I am very reluctant of their use in a large eco system such as the ocean. If anything goes wrong, it cannot be easily corrected.
      I think the best solution is to educate people about the use of plastic and promote recycling. And as Charles suggested, the best solution is to stop the production and use of plastic.
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        Jul 18 2012: "[...] there is still a chance of gene recombination that could result in the deactivation [of the] kill switch[es]'"

        You sum it up perfectly, Oyeronke. The foreseeable is quite finite and obviously non-inclusive of the unforeseeable.
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    Jul 16 2012: When oil reaches $1000 a barrel the flotsam of the oceans will be mined to reclaim the valuable plasic. Today's rubbish is next centuries gold (and vice versa)
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    Jul 14 2012: Yes, synthetic biology is part of the future, we must give it a chance, it's a cheap way to solve very costly problems.
  • Jul 13 2012: No robots.
  • Jul 13 2012: While it's not the only solution, it's one of the most difficult. Synthetic implies you're talking about creating life from scratch. If that's not the case and you mean genetic engineering, then it seems plausible. If the organisms are given no way to reproduce, and are left to eat away their only food source, with bodies non-toxic to the ecosystem, then there's no harm. That's too many big "if"s, though. I think that nanobots would be a better investment than genetically altered bacteria that eats waste. That's just for things like oil spills that are not a constant threat. If you ask me, we should clean the air by taking a better look at our inefficient cattle industry. The price of good steak would go way down (yay!). And the water waste could be analyzed for traces of elements that could be reused as fuel. But if you're talking about microscopic organisms to clean up pollution, I'd give it a no. To difficult to control. Bacteria don't have the option of a kill switch and can transmit viruses (unlike nanobots). They are also harder to control and clean up themselves because they are biological.
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      Jul 14 2012: Synthetic biology has already begun and engineers have already created some bacteria life from scratch, it's not hard to test these organisms efficiency in controlled area and they can be made for almost any purpose, specific purposes like clearing plastic waste or even toxic waste, oil spills, or whatever the application.

      Perhaps in a few decades we will have whole cities and buildings that will grow instead of being constructed. These buildings will be synthetic life forms, they might sustain from human waste and provide for most of our needs, combined with robotic and AI, synthetic biology will make the world much more natural and harmonious than without.
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        Jul 16 2012: AI? Thats light years away for a Type 0 Civilization. If we had AI now the robots would rebel against its masters cause they would realize we are the problem makers on this planet! LOL Think about it if you programmed them to create harmony on the planet what you think would really happen?
    • Jul 16 2012: Just to clarify, synthetic biology does not necessitate "creating life from scratch". Synthetic biology as a field aims to create functions and systems not found naturally. This includes (for example) introducing genes for fluorescent proteins into E.Coli, which is a form of genetic engineering that has been done for quite a while now.

      The main difference in synthetic biology is that it focuses on establishing tools to do so in a standardised way, allowing different labs to design gene constructs that are compatible with each other.

      Within the scope of the iGEM competition we are a part of, this includes finding 'useful' genes, isolating them for transformation into microbial cells such as E.Coli, and submitting these new gene constructs to a centralised registry so that future teams can utilise the genetic constructs we have made.
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    Jul 12 2012: Or, you cold just strap fine tuned filters to boats and drag them along.
  • Jul 12 2012: I think that to do that would simply result in replacing one problem with another.My view is that 'bio-engineering' and 'genetic-engineering' endeavours do not, and cannot fullty take into account the impact to the bio-sphere that introducing the product(s) of these efforts into it may have in the long run. Our planet is a vastly complex system of life forms, atmospheric patterns, oceanic currents and geological activity that we can barely understand. Introducing man-made life forms into this complexity can and likely will have some form of negative impact that will offset the natural cycles, and I think that every time we do so, we take a huge gamble with the Earth's systems that sustain us.
    So, no, I believe that introducing synthetic organisms to clean-up our garbage in the oceans is a wrong approach. In the end, human muscle power and machinery is always the better solutioin.
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    Jul 12 2012: Yes, without qualification people should go out into the oceans, peferably on boats and collect all the junk we are responsible for loosing. Those who make plastic bottles should be in the lead boats. I suggest we grab that guy from the caribbean (origninally from England I think ) who turned plastic debris into an island of his own. I think we should play a reverse game of Survivor to populate it.
    Oh, that was not what you meant by synthetic life?

    ***********Addition;
    In fact, I was wrong - the man I rerferred to above is from Germany. Here is alink which discusses his use of plastic bottles to create a home island and his philosphy.

    http://youtu.be/Afp_jobnsNg