Four ways scientists are co-opting nature to solve the problems of the 21st century This past summer, the super-chef Dan Barber, who runs a restaurant/farm in New York, brought news of a bizarre, paradoxical creation: ethical foie gras. Seriously. It was amazing to hear, especially for foodies. But..
Four ways scientists are co-opting nature to solve the problems of the 21st centuryThis past summer, the super-chef Dan Barber, who runs a restaurant/farm in New York, brought news of a bizarre, paradoxical creation: ethical foie gras. Seriously. It was amazing to hear, especially for foodies. But the lesson is bigger, because of exactly how that ethical foie gras was created.The farmer that makes the foie gras takes advantage of a natural instinct in geese: to gorge themselves during winter, in preparation to fly south. But rather than force feeding the geese, as all other farmers would to create foie gras, he provides them with a goose paradise-all the figs and goodies they can eat, and a protective fence that keeps them safe from predators. The set-up is so cushy that the geese will call to their wild cousins, flying overhead-hollering about the incredible digs they've got, until the wild geese land. And they stay-their goal, ultimately, being to find the best place to live and breed, rather than just to fly south.Notice how the farmer accomplished this: Rather than creating a synthetic process (like force feeding), he created a system that satisfies the geese, and takes maximum advantage of the instincts with which nature has supplied them. That is, he hacked nature's imperatives, and re-engineered them to his ends.Scientists are doing the same to fight global warming. What Barber presented as merely a parable of how we'll cook in the 21st century might be a principle so broad that one day we'll look back and regard naturally invented solutions as inexorable as evolution or the bell curve.Now, this insight is to be distinguished from what's often called biomimicry-looking at nature and trying to copy it as best we can. (Granted, biomimicry holds great promise: Scientists are looking for ways to mimic photosynthesis, so that we'll be able to use only sunlight and water to create abundant hydrogen, just like plants. A massive breakthrough came last year, in fact. The surfaces of moth eyes and butterfly wings, to cite another example, are teaching us how to build more efficient solar panels.)Dan Barber's foie gras example isn't biomimicry. Rather, it suggests that we might be able to take preexisting natural processes, and alter them just enough to fashion a sustainable future for ourselves. This is more than a coincidence of shared interest. If you were to summarize evolution's sweep, you might say that nature has, by necessity, solved the problem of carbon saturation, at least in miniature-simply because it's a fundamental hurdle for living in some of the earth's varied ecosystems. To that end, nature has engaged in a two-billion-year engineering experiment via evolution. Here are a few examples of how scientists are already taking advantage:1. Hacking into microbes What if we could hack into microbes, using their prior molecular processes to create drugs or biofuels? Michelle Chang, of UC Berkeley is doing just that, taking bacteria that usually live in extreme conditions and designing them so that they'll perform chemical processes-such as converting plant waste into biofuel-that are too difficult or expensive to perform at large scale.
The same goal-cheap, quick ways to break down plants for biofuel-might also be achieved with help from the fungi that cause wood to rot. They're adapted to turn wood into sugar. Few organisms can, and scientists have decoded the fungus genes so that others might create biofuels more efficiently.2. Changing the color of plantsThe colors on the surface of the earth affect how much light and heat are reflected back into the atmosphere. That's one reason why polar ice melts are so troublesome-the white of the ice reflects enormous amounts of energy back into space. One scientist wants to take advantage of this by creating crops that reflect more light. The professor that has proposed the idea thinks that, all told, the effect could reduce warming by .1 degree Celsius-a significant number, when you consider that we're likely to see two degrees of increase by 2100.3. Using plants to soak up carbon Meanwhile, plants themselves are engines for soaking up carbon, and scientists have been seeking to rejigger that process to fight global warming for some time. One incredibly simple idea is to simply drown crop residues, thus removing carbon from circulation in the world's ecosystems.4. Super fast growing plantsRecently scientists took microbes that usually colonize trees, and combined them with bacteria that naturally break down contaminants. That allowed them to create poplar trees and clean soil. But then things got even more interesting: It turns out, their engineered microbes make trees grow faster in normal soil-which suggests new ways to make super-fast growing plants for carbon sequestration or biofuel, on marginal land that isn't being used for agriculture. (A huge problem, because biofuel crops will otherwise take up arable land, driving up food costs.)