TED Conversations

Philipp Böing

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


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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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  • 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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