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Can bioengineering save our civilization?

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Posted November 7, 2014
Image credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Image credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There is an agreement among the members of the scientific community that climate change will seriously affect our societies. Moreover, it is highly possible that global warming will have disastrous effects. Apparently slow processes can lead a system to a rapid collapse once tipping point is reached. How can we save our societies? Ricard Solé who is an External Professor of the Santa Fe Institute argues that this can be done using bioengineering.

Various strategies to fight climate change have been proposed over the last decades. In addition to reduction of greenhouse emissions, diverse geo-engineering techniques have been offered. However, Sole remains skeptical about them. “The cost of most proposed solutions is typically enormous, as a consequence of the massive scales involved. These solutions include a broad variety of possibilities, from hundreds of thousands of towers to capture carbon dioxide to trillions of small, free-flying spacecrafts,” the scientist says.

Sole offers paradoxically sounding alternative. He hopes that our planet can be terraformed. Terraforming of a planet is the theoretical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to the biosphere of Earth. This idea is widely discussed when the question of Mars colonization is tackled. Some scholars argue that red planet can be inhabited by bacterias who are able to adapt to very extreme conditions. They will set the stage for other more complex organisms. “A major difference of this type of engineering is obvious and crucially departs from geoengineering: since living entities self-replicate, an engineered organism capable of large-scale dispersal would eventually reach, by growth and reproduction, the desired scale,” the biologist explains.

Obviously, this bottom up approach does not suit Earth’s needs, because our planet has its own ecological system already.  Nonetheless, Sole believes that new organisms could alter damaged ecological networks in order to sustain ecological stability. In other words, he claims that top-down approach can be applied in the case of our planet. “This could be achieved within reasonably short time scales and the proposal is not limited to capturing carbon dioxide: as an example, engineered bacteria could be designed to help plants plants facing stressful habitat conditions in order to improve their survival, perhaps enhancing desirable soil microbial communities,” the Spanish researcher claims.

Article: Sole R., 2014, Bioengineering the Biosphere?, Santa Fe Working Papers, source link.

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