I recently read the book Regenesis, by George M. Church. This book provides a good preview of where the breakthroughs in genetic engineering are going to take us in the near future. We have written before about how genetic engineering will create a tectonic shift that will move us dramatically closer to a post-scarcity era of abundance.
Just last week, MIT News released the findings that researchers had developed a new way edit the genome with high precision. Church hinted at the developments happening on this front, and it is clear from following the news after reading the book that many of his predictions are coming to pass sooner rather than later.
I would like to point out one passage from the MIT News article, that readers of the Post Scarcity Alliance should consider:
The research team has deposited the necessary genetic components with a nonprofit called Addgene, making the components widely available to other researchers who want to use the system. The researchers have also created a website with tips and tools for using this new technique.
Notice how what is hailed as a major breakthrough is then made widely available through an open-source network of fellow engineers. It is this open-source nature of genetic engineering technology that leads me to believe that it will be a revolutionary technology that will have unexpected consequences – just like the internet. It is also likely that those who become the stewards of this technology will become very protective of its open-source ethos. Remember what happened when Congress tried to regulate the internet with SOPA? The online revolt stopped this regulatory effort in its tracks.
Now picture a world where genetic engineers are able to access the raw materials of their trade from open-source labs. The possibility that new species are engineered in someone’s garage will become a reality. As frightening/awesome (depends who you ask) as this sounds, trying to control or regulate this activity will be like trying to regulate the internet via SOPA. It’s one thing for a group of environmentalists to fence off land and keep out trespassers. It is completely different to fence of information, and prevent it from being shared.
For a hint of what this could mean for the Endangered Species Act, consider this passage from a recent Wired magazine article, “The Attack of the Mutant Pupfish“:
For half a century, conservationists have seen themselves as preservationists: Protect species X as it exists in place Y at time Z. Of course, nature has no such compunctions. Evolution is change. So the way to save the Devils Hole pupfish, Martin says, is to introduce genes from its cousin, the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish—C. nevadensis, the same little Casanova from the refuge—which is native to a spring just a few miles away. Martin wants to take one or two and drop them in with their endangered relatives. That simple act would have profound implications. It would protect the Devils Hole pupfish by rewriting its genome.
Whether or not you care about pupfish, this plan represents a major philosophical change in how we think about our relationship with nature—because it doesn’t end with the pupfish. It ends with us becoming architects, engineers, and contractors for entire ecosystems. The old approach involved fencing off swaths of wilderness and stepping aside. In the new order, we’d be the stewards not just of land or wildlife but of individual chromosomes. So far, in the world of Devils Hole pupfish conservation, Martin has run into a wall of no. But around the world, in other places where other species are in trouble, the answer, increasingly, is yes.
I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, this will all lead to an existential crisis for environmentalists and conservation science, and the linked Wired article validates this concern:
Is the idea of “pure” or “pristine” nature even a useful conceptual tool? Conservationists face what is in some ways as existential a threat as the one confronting the pupfish. The more they learn about nature, the more they wonder which part they’re supposed to conserve[…] […] The future, then, will involve more intensive management of ecosystems and their inhabitants. That includes meddling not just in biogeography—what lives where—but in genes. There’s a delicate balance between saving a species and saving a gene pool, and calibrating it may be one of the biggest challenges of 21st-century conservation. We might, for instance, simply let the Devils Hole pupfish slip away and fill its pool with something else. Scientists like that idea about as much as they like creationism. They believe that any critter might play a crucial, irreplaceable role in an ecosystem.
As we learn more about precision genetic engineering, different species with unique characteristic will suddenly have immense intrinsic material worth. The preservation of biodiversity until now has rested on the myth that biodiversity is a carefully balanced system, where if too many species go extinct the system will experience a cascading failure. What previously required a leap of faith, will now be known with certainty and precision. Genetic traits among species will be kind of like apps on your smartphone. When someone laments that we are going to great lengths to save some bug or rodent or bird, the conservationist can finally make the case for the value of biodiversity in economic terms that will make the trade-off more acceptable. While we are likely to see a massive adoption of the need to conserve as many species as possible, it is reasonable to suspect that the current focus on restricting human behaviors to protect species will be replaced by a focus on preserving their DNA, engineering new species, and engineering species to adapt to different habitats.
The picture at the top of this post is a picture of the “pristine” environment of the Devil’s Hole pupfish. It is clear that this is an environment that has already been “geo-engineered” by homo sapiens. With all those contraptions that look like they came from the Star Wars planet, Tatooine, that have apparently been placed there to save the species, would it really be that much more of an intervention to save this species by manipulating its DNA?