Cautionary tales of microbe evolution

While humans plod along, microbe civilizations rise and fall and rise again.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works,

Atlantic Monthly is running a fun, breezy piece on J. Craig Venter, the researcher famous for sequencing the human genome for profit, now hard at work trying to concoct microbes that will convert agricultural waste into biofuels. But the piece is notable for a gaping hole — there isn’t one single solitary sentence wondering whether there might be any risks involved in synthesizing new, previously-unknown-to-nature microbes and putting them to work for human benefit.

It was amusing to note this omission, because literally last night I read the section of Denise Caruso’s “Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet” that discussed Venter’s research. Part of that discussion is worth repeating here, because Caruso makes a point about microbial evolution that I had not seen elsewhere.

Microbes evolve quickly. Very, very quickly. Caruso quotes Joshua Lederberg, recipient of a Nobel Prize for work on bacterial genetics, writing in Science magazine:

What makes microbial evolution particularly intriguing, and worrisome, is a combination of vast populations and intense fluctuations in those populations. It’s a formula for top-speed evolution. Microbial populations may fluctuate by factors of 10 billion on a daily cycle as they move between hosts, or as they encounter antibiotics, antibodies, or other natural hazards. A simple comparison of the pace of evolution between microbes and their multicellular hosts suggest a millionfold or billionfold advantage to the microbe. A year in the life of bacteria would easily match the span of mammalian evolution! By that metric, we would seem to be playing out of our evolutionary league.”

The point being: What happens after we design and create a synthetic microbe that does some wonderful thing like chew on corn stalks and generate hydrogen? What happens if it mutates unexpectedly, sneaks out of the biorefinery and starts chomping on a nearby oak forest? What are the safeguards to prevent that?

It’s easy enough to dismiss such critiques with a wave of the hand as the wild-eyed ravings of fearful neo-Luddites who know nothing of the scientific issues involved. But a little more detail on why exactly bio-Armaggedon isn’t going to break out does seem to be in order. Creating new life forms from scratch is a big step for humanity. Stumbling and skinning our knees as we move forward doesn’t seem to be out of the question.

But Caruso goes on to observe: “Yet among the scores of articles I’ve read about Venter’s transgenic microbe projects, there was not one mention of these known scientific realities, or of risk.”

Add the Atlantic Monthly, which should know better, to that list.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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